Madonna, World Peace, and Religious Pluralism

World Peace was center stage during Madonna’s halftime performance at this year’s Super Bowl. For our Wondering Fair readers uninterested in American culture or sports, I will spare you the details of the well-choreographed and highly entertaining spectacle. This essay focuses less on the glitz and glamour of the Super Bowl than on the possibility of world peace in an age of religious pluralism. 2011 as we know was a year rife with protests, so is world peace in the way Madonna envisions possible? Can we all learn to “coexist,” as the trendy bumper stickers encourage us to do? Madonna’s halftime performance seems to suggest that we can achieve global shalom, but it’s hard to imagine such a world when our current economic, political, and religious differences are so severe.

On the religious front, one proposal to help establish world peace is to adopt a position called religious pluralism. Promulgated by academic theologians like Wilfred Cantwell Smith and John Hick, religious pluralism is the idea that all religions are essentially equal paths up the same divine mountain. Each simply recognizes Truth in a different way, though all roads lead to God. In Hick’s own words, “pluralism is the view that the great world faiths embody different perceptions and conceptions of, and correspondingly different responses to, the Real or the Ultimate from within the major variant cultural ways of being human….”[1] Here, in his desire to remain religiously neutral, Hick substitutes the word “Real” for God, a term which has a clear Abrahamic bias. The benefits of religious pluralism, it is thought, are that people may stop trying to convert or coerce others into their way of thinking and thereby live together in harmony.

Despite good intentions, there are several problems with religious pluralism. First, it is methodologically flawed. In an attempt to find what is common to all faiths, the pluralist is forced to ignore seriously important elements of each religion. The things that make religions unique—such as the Trinity for Christians or the prophecy of Muhammad for Muslims—are routinely trivialized and viewed as unnecessary additions. To suggest that Christians or Muslims willingly give up their core doctrines in favor of a far more ambiguous pluralist picture of the divine seems ill-conceived.

Second, pluralism is morally problematic. If the Real does not reveal Itself to people in history, then the religious practices of faithful Hindus, Jews, Christians, and Muslims are based on misunderstandings. Since the Real hides Itself from everyone (except for Hick and other pluralists!) and remains fundamentally mysterious to us, we are in the dark morally and cannot live in a way that pleases the Real. This deep agnosticism which runs through religious pluralism makes it especially difficult to discern right from wrong.

Third, pluralism is logically impossible. As many scholars have pointed out, the idea that all religions are true in their own way flies in the face of common sense.[2] All religions make exclusive truth-claims and prioritize their understanding of reality over against others. Religious pluralism, with its nuanced and sophisticated understanding of the Real, is no different. Ironically, the desire to create a universal religion for everyone only leads to the denial of all other truth-claims made by religious believers. How can Hinduism, with its claim to 330 million gods, be just as true as Theravada Buddhism, which has zero gods, or Judaism, which has only one?

Finally, from a Christian perspective, religious pluralism fails to acknowledge Jesus as Lord. To be sure, this is unproblematic for persons of other faiths, but for Christians who want to be true to their historic beliefs, Jesus must be seen not merely as one manifestation of an unknown higher deity we call the Real. Rather, Jesus made known his identity in history by walking among people and saying things like, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” and “I and the Father are one.”[3] His exclusive truth-claims, as we know, not only caused consternation and led to his crucifixion, but they were and continue to be fundamental to the Christian story. Despite its lack of Super Bowl glitz and glamour, it is this story, I would argue, that promises to end all protests and ultimately usher in real world peace.

Paul McClure


[1] John Hick, “Religious Pluralism.” Reprinted in Philosophy of Religion: Selected Readings. Ed by Michael Peterson, William Hasker, et al. (New York: Oxford UP, 2001), 565.

[2] For more resources, see Harold Netland’s Encountering Religious Pluralism, Stephen Prothero’s God Is Not One, Vinoth Ramachandra’s Faiths in Conflict, John Stackhouse’s No Other Gods Before Me, and Ravi Zacharias’ Jesus Among Other Gods.

[3] Italics added. John 14:6, 10:30 (NIV)

*Thanks also to Professor Ivan Satyavrata for his helpful lecture on religious pluralism.

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5 responses to “Madonna, World Peace, and Religious Pluralism

  1. Good look at the fundamentals of a Christian response to pluralism. Loved your articles on Christianity and homosexuality too – got me on your followers list – and I think kicking around in among those articles is a suggestion on how and why to treat with love those who are different, without pretending that the differences don’t exist. :)

  2. If you are interested in some new ideas on religious pluralism and the Trinity, please check out my website at http://www.religiouspluralism.ca, and give me your thoughts on improving content and presentation.

    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 Universal 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 (see book cover); involving the harmonization of “yin and yang” (great opposing ideas indentified 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: http://www.religiouspluralism.ca

    Samuel Stuart Maynes

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