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Buddhist-Christian Studies 24.1 (2004) 135-157

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"That We May Know Each Other":

The Pluralist Hypothesis as a Research Program

Pacific Lutheran University

When an African American Muslim named Siraj Wahaj served as the first Muslim "Chaplain of the Day" in the Unites States House of Representatives on 25 June 1991 he offered the following prayer, the first Muslim prayer in the in the history of the House of Representatives:

In the name of God, Most Gracious, Most merciful. Praise belongs to thee alone; O God, Lord and Creator of all the worlds. Praise belongs to Thee Who shaped us as and colored us in the wombs of our mothers; colored us black and white, brown, red, and yellow. Praise belongs to Thee who created us from males and females and made us into nations and tribes that we may know each other.1

Siraj Wahaj's prayer is a direct reference to one of the most cited verses of the Qur'an: "Do you not know, O people, that I have made you into tribes and nations that you may know each other." Of course, "knowing each other" is an important goal in the practice of interreligious dialogue, but Muslims often move on to cite further Qur'anic advice about religious pluralism: "If God had so willed, He would have made you a single people," the verse reads, "But His plan is to test you in what He hath given you; so strive as in a race in all virtues."2 According to Siraj Wahaj and many like-minded American Muslims, Islam and pluralism go hand in hand and respect for the dignity for each person, no matter what religious or secular label he or she wears, rests on Islamic foundations. Of course, this interpretation of the Qur'an is rejected by radical communities within the House of Islam as well as by fundamentalist communities within Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, and Jewish traditions. Nor are the foundations of pluralism only found in the Qur'an; Buddhist, Jewish, Hindu, Christian, and aboriginal traditions support religious pluralism as well.

This essay's thesis, what John Hick first posited as the "pluralist hypothesis," offers us the most coherent theoretical framework—minus Hick's Kantian epistemology—from which to interpret contemporary postmodern experiences of religious [End Page 135] diversity. Furthermore, I shall argue that the pluralist hypothesis constitutes a coherent history-of-religions research program from which to investigate and interpret the facts of religious diversity.3 In order to demonstrate the adequacy of my thesis and argument, I shall appropriate the philosopher of science Imre Lakatos's account of the methodology and structure of scientific research programs, guided by Nancy Murphy's application of Lakatos's work in the construction of theological research programs. But first, some preliminary clarifications about what I mean by "religious pluralism" and "religious diversity."4

The Structure of the Experience of Religious Pluralism

In a recent book on the lives of four Catholic writers—Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Flannery O'Connor, and Walker Percy—Paul Elie provides one of the most accurate descriptions of the structure of postmodern experience of religious diversity in English print:

We are all skeptics now, believer and unbeliever alike. There is no one faith, evident at all times and places. Every religion is one among many. The clear lines of orthodoxy are made crooked by our experience, and are complicated by our lives. Believer and unbeliever are in the same predicament, thrown back onto ourselves in complex circumstances, looking for a sign. As ever, religious belief makes its claim somewhere between revelation and projection, between holiness and human frailty, but the problem of proof, indeed the burden of belief, for so long upheld by society, is now back on the believer, where it should be.5

Assuming that Elie's description is an accurate one, certain implications follow that will serve as working assumptions of this essay.

"Pluralism" is not just another name for "diversity." Diversity names the fact of the existence of differing...