Principled Pluralism and Interreligious Dialogue

by Frans van Liere.

A circle featuring symbols of several religions surrounding a peace dove.Last Thursday, April 25, Calvin College hosted “Principled Pluralism: Navigating America’s Increasingly Diverse Religious Landscape”, a panel discussion on religious pluralism on college campuses, with Joseph DeMott moderating a discussion among Calvin’s president Michael LeRoy, Calvin Theological Seminary president Jul Medenblik, and Alec Hill, the president of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.

The panel discussion was sponsored by the Aspen Institute and GVSU’s Kaufman Institute, at the initiative of the latter’s founder Sylvia Kaufman. Sylvia has always been a strong voice for interreligious dialogue in western Michigan, and she is the driving force behind the West Michigan Academic Consortium, a forum for interreligious dialogue that includes Calvin College and several West Michigan institutions of higher learning. Calvin College has now hosted three of the consortium’s annual conferences, featuring Jewish (James Kugel), Christian (Karen King) and Muslim (Omid Safi) speakers. (Omid Safi’s presentation at Calvin College can be viewed here, starting at 9:31.) The next conference in this series will be hosted by Cornerstone University on October 14, 2014.

Panelists on stage showing audience.
“Principled Pluralism” event, April 24, 2014.
Image copyright 2014, photography by Ellen Alderink.

It may seem ironic to hold a panel on religious diversity on college campuses that features only Christian speakers on a Christian campus. However, as President LeRoy pointed out in the discussion, being in a consciously Christian learning environment does not mean shutting oneself off from religious diversity or even interreligious dialogue; Calvin offers a Christian education that engages the world, not one that separates itself from it. The same is true of Calvin Theological Seminary, and both presidents offered meaningful examples of how Christians today can and should engage in religious dialogue.

My own research into Jewish-Christian relations in the Middle Ages, and my experience teaching a course on the history of the Crusades, have helped me to appreciate interreligious dialogue as an essential part of a liberal arts education. Yet it is a problematic concept for many Christians. It presents a classic trilemma, a logical challenge in which three propositions are available but not all three can be chosen together. It is a bit like juggling three balls with two hands (something, I confess I cannot do). One ball is always in the air while you’re handling the other two. To catch the third ball, you must drop one of the other two. The three balls in this case are: absolute truth; universal validity, and tolerance. In choosing any two of these, you seem to rule out the third one. For instance, you can claim that your religion is absolutely true, and that it is true for all people. But that makes you not particularly tolerant towards other religions: you think they are wrong, and that they should convert. Or you can claim that your religion is absolutely true, and be tolerant of other religions at the same time. But this works best if your own understanding of “truth” is something strictly personal, which should not necessarily be accepted by all. Or you can hold that there should be one universal religion, and at the same time be tolerant towards all other religions; but that usually means you think all religions are somehow true, which logically also means that none of them is entirely true. To offer a stereotype: in this juggling act, you can be either a Jehovah Witness, a Quaker, or a Unitarian-Universalist. (I know these are stereotypes that do not necessarily represent the beliefs of these religious convictions; I only offer them here for the sake of the discussion.)

Here at Calvin, we most often encounter the first stance. Evangelical Christians often think that if one ball must be dropped, it is the ball of tolerance. The principle of tolerance, after all, is an inheritance of the Enlightenment, rather than the Christian tradition. We confess that Christ is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14: 6). And we believe that we should go “to all nations and make them [his] disciples” (Matt. 28: 19). This does make Christianity not particularly tolerant towards other religions. Saying that Christ is “the way and the truth” does not mean that “my religion is just as true as yours,” or that “what’s true for me may not be true for you,” two statements that are often associated with the idea of religious tolerance.

four panelists on stage
Jul Medenblik, Michael LeRoy, Alec Hill, and Joe DeMott discuss religious pluralism on US college campuses.
Image copyright 2014, photography by Ellen Alderink.

This is why some Christians are suspicious of engaging in interreligious dialogue. They fear either “watering down” one’s own truth statements, or syncretism. Instead of engaging in interreligious dialogue, we should be testifying to the truth of Christ’s Gospel, they say. In the panel discussion, both of these objections to interreligious dialogue were in fact heard. Speaker Alec Hill expressed some skepticism about interreligious church services, and saw them as a form of syncretism, while a member of the audience wondered if it was not “disingenuous” to engage in interreligious dialogue without testifying that Jesus is “the way.”

These fears are understandable, but they should not be barriers to interreligious dialogue. Engaging in interreligious dialogue need not mean giving up one’s own deepest-held religious convictions. Quite the contrary. Most who do take part in sustained discussions with believers from other faiths report being spiritually nourished and enriched through the encounter, and gaining a better appreciation of their own beliefs and traditions.

Syncretism may also be a red herring. Christians sometimes see the specter of syncretism in places where we need not fear it, while we ignore it in places where it is much more prominent and pernicious. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warned against religious syncretism only once. He said “You cannot serve God and Money” (Matt. 6:24). Here is a form of syncretism we should be much more worried about; yet many Christians are completely blind to it. Sometimes it takes skill to identify the idols of one’s own age. When it comes to religious poverty, we can learn much from other religions, such as Buddhism.

Do we best testify to our beliefs by trying to convert our dialogue partners? We are called to share our faith with others, but there are different ways to do that in different contexts. Engaging in a dialogue in a spirit of humility and charity may be a more effective way of testifying to the love of Christ. I am glad that Calvin and Calvin seminary’s presidents at last Thursday’s panel modeled this kind of Christian witness.

Frans van Liere is Professor of History and director of the Medieval Studies program at Calvin. He teaches world history, medieval history, and history of the book. He grew up in the Netherlands and studied theology and medieval studies at the University of Groningen. His research interests are medieval biblical exegesis, twelfth-century intellectual history, and the late medieval papacy. He lives in Grand Rapids, MI with his wife, two teenage sons, and a cat named Lancelot.

6 thoughts on “Principled Pluralism and Interreligious Dialogue

  1. If you are interested in some new ideas on religious pluralism and the Trinity, please check out my website at It previews my book, which has not been published yet and is still a “work-in-progress.” Your constructive criticism would be very much appreciated.

    My thesis is that an abstract version of the Trinity could be Christianity’s answer to the world need for a framework of pluralistic theology.

    In a constructive worldview: east, west, and far-east religions present a threefold understanding of One God manifest primarily in Muslim and Hebrew intuition of the Deity Absolute, Christian and Krishnan Hindu conception of the Universe Absolute Supreme Being; and Shaivite Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist apprehension of the Destroyer (meaning also Consummator), Unconditioned Absolute, or Spirit of All That Is and is not. Together with their variations and combinations in other major religions, these religious ideas reflect and express our collective understanding of God, in an expanded concept of the Holy Trinity.

    The Trinity Absolute is portrayed in the logic of world religions, as follows:

    1. Muslims and Jews may be said to worship only the first person of the Trinity, i.e. the existential Deity Absolute Creator, known as Allah or Yhwh, Abba or Father (as Jesus called him), Brahma, and other names; represented by Gabriel (Executive Archangel), Muhammad and Moses (mighty messenger prophets), and others.

    2. Christians and Krishnan Hindus may be said to worship the first person through a second person, i.e. the experiential Universe or “Universal” Absolute Supreme Being (Allsoul or Supersoul), called Son/Christ or Vishnu/Krishna; represented by Michael (Supreme Archangel), Jesus (teacher and savior of souls), and others. The Allsoul is that gestalt of personal human consciousness, which we expect will be the “body of Christ” (Mahdi, Messiah, Kalki or Maitreya) in the second coming – personified in history by Muhammad, Jesus Christ, Buddha (9th incarnation of Vishnu), and others.

    3. Shaivite Hindus, Buddhists, and Confucian-Taoists seem to venerate the synthesis of the first and second persons in a third person or appearance, ie. the Destiny Consummator of ultimate reality – unqualified Nirvana consciousness – associative Tao of All That Is – the absonite* Unconditioned Absolute Spirit “Synthesis of Source and Synthesis,”** who/which is logically expected to be Allah/Abba/Brahma glorified in and by union with the Supreme Being – represented in religions by Gabriel, Michael, and other Archangels, Mahadevas, Spiritpersons, etc., who may be included within the mysterious Holy Ghost.

    Other strains of religion seem to be psychological variations on the third person, or possibly combinations and permutations of the members of the Trinity – all just different personality perspectives on the Same God. Taken together, the world’s major religions give us at least two insights into the first person of this thrice-personal One God, two perceptions of the second person, and at least three glimpses of the third.

    * The ever-mysterious Holy Ghost or Unconditioned Spirit is neither absolutely infinite, nor absolutely finite, but absonite; meaning neither existential nor experiential, but their ultimate consummation; neither fully ideal nor totally real, but a middle path and grand synthesis of the superconscious and the conscious, in consciousness of the unconscious.

    ** This conception is so strong because somewhat as the Absonite Spirit is a synthesis of the spirit of the Absolute and the spirit of the Supreme, so it would seem that the evolving Supreme Being may himself also be a synthesis or “gestalt” of humanity with itself, in an Almighty Universe Allperson or Supersoul. Thus ultimately, the Absonite is their Unconditioned Absolute Coordinate Identity – the Spirit Synthesis of Source and Synthesis – the metaphysical Destiny Consummator of All That Is.

    After the Hindu and Buddhist conceptions, perhaps the most subtle expression and comprehensive symbol of the 3rd person of the Trinity is the Tao; involving the harmonization of “yin and yang” (great opposing ideas identified in positive and negative, or otherwise contrasting terms). In the Taoist icon of yin and yang, the s-shaped line separating the black and white spaces may be interpreted as the Unconditioned “Middle Path” between condition and conditioned opposites, while the circle that encompasses them both suggests their synthesis in the Spirit of the “Great Way” or Tao of All That Is.

    If the small black and white circles or “eyes” are taken to represent a nucleus of truth in both yin and yang, then the metaphysics of this symbolism fits nicely with the paradoxical mystery of the Christian Holy Ghost; who is neither the spirit of the one nor the spirit of the other, but the Glorified Spirit proceeding from both, taken altogether – as one entity – personally distinct from his co-equal, co-eternal and fully coordinate co-sponsors, who differentiate from him, as well as mingle and meld in him.

    For more details, please see:

    Samuel Stuart Maynes


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  3. Interesting how Christians are so willing to engage in this amalgamation of world faiths. Let me say that no true Christian will. In the effort to appease, the casualty in this world of religious political correctness is the gospel of Jesus. Instead, folks in the name of world peace wish to hoist strange fire on God’s altar. We all know how that worked out the first time. Jesus says even today that he who confesses me before man; them will I confess before the Father and the holy Angels.

    What is being suggested in the interreligous arena is the abdication of the gospel in lieu of a perceived peace. Let me remind you all “Anti Christ” destroys many through peace. This is the wine of fornication, the wine of wrath in the Mystery Babylons cup and the world is becoming fast inflamed with it’s drunkenness.

    Liked by 1 person

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