restricted access Pluralism Conference
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Pluralism Conference

In September 2003 a conference was held at Birmingham University, UK, of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Sikhs who all hold the "pluralist" view that no one religion is the one and only true or uniquely salvific faith, but that, in the words of the thirteenth-century Sufi thinker Rumi, "The lamps are different but the Light is the same: it comes from beyond." The conveners were Professors Perry Schmidt-Leukel of Glasgow University, Paul Knitter of Xavier University (Cincinnati), Leonard Swidler of Temple University (Philadelphia), and John Hick of Birmingham University. My own account of the purpose of the conference is that we are academics who are committed and practicing believers within but not official representatives of (in rough order of origin) the Hindu, Jewish, Buddhist, Christian (both Catholic and Protestant), Muslim, and Sikh faiths.

We are acutely aware that throughout history almost all human conflicts have been validated and intensified by a religious sanction. God has been claimed to be on both sides of every war. This has been possible because each of the great world faiths has either assumed or asserted its own unique superiority as the one and only true faith and path to the highest good—in familiar Christian terms, to salvation. These exclusive claims to absolute truth have exacerbated the division of the human community into rival groups, and have repeatedly been invoked in support of oppression, slavery, conquest, and exploitation.

The second half of twentieth century saw both a worldwide development of interreligious dialogue, coinciding with considerable east-to-west migration, and also a strong contrary growth of aggressive fundamentalism in powerful elements within each tradition. But dialogue has led to a much greater mutual knowledge and appreciation between the world faiths, so that it is now possible for leaders of the religious institutions to meet in mutual amity and respect. However they still, for the most part, retain as their bottom line a conviction of the unique centrality and priority of their own tradition. Sharing in this way the same fundamental conviction as their militant fundamentalist elements, they lack any principled ground on which to oppose them.

We offer for discussion, as the fruit of our deliberations, a step beyond this unstable situation. We note that the world religions share the basic belief in a higher reality, of limitless importance to us, that transcends the material universe and yet can [End Page 253] be encountered through the depth of our own being. They also share the basic belief that this present life is not the entirety of human existence but part of a much larger life. And they share the central values of love, compassion, and justice within the human community here on earth.

We note that the deepest thinkers within each tradition express a profound sense of mystery, insisting that the ultimate reality to which their faith is oriented lies in its fullness beyond the range of our comprehension. We humans can describe it, not as it is in itself, but as great revelatory moments have caused it to be variously conceived and experienced within the different ways of being human that are the great cultures of the world. The religions, then, are different and unique totalities, each with its own founding events, paradigmatic figures, sacred writings, remembered history, spiritual practices, intellectual formulations, distinctive ethos, and institutional forms. We believe that they are different responses to the universal presence of the ineffable ultimate reality.

Although individual conversions between the faiths have always occurred, in the vast majority of cases religious believers are born into and are formed by a particular tradition. It therefore fits them and they fit it, so that it is for them the right and true religion. We should therefore each normally stay within our inherited tradition, using its spiritual resources to the fullest. We must also, however, recognize that the same principle holds for the hundreds of millions who have been born into and formed by other traditions. We should see those religions as independently authentic and valid, of equal value with our own, welcoming mutual enrichment from one another's traditions and also allowing for the raising of critical questions about...