Pluralism and orthodoxy

by Joanna K. M. Bratten

It is a fact of human nature that not everyone will always see eye to eye on all matters, from points of taste to questions of religious principle. Thanks to this fact, journals such as the Concourse are able to flourish, as a forum for discussion-for the throwing about of brains, if you like. But there comes a point, does there not, when the participants in a debate have to cede: “This is my position and that is yours and neither of us is absolutely in the right.”

Certainly in the business of academia this must be. In literary criticism, for example, it does the Marxist theorist no good to proclaim his or her reading of a given work the absolutely correct reading, because the Marxist can look to the feminist readings, for example, and see that these readings are equally viable. Richard Levin, a critic from Chicago, leveled an attack some years ago on feminist critics who rejected out of hand every interpretation of Shakespeare but their own. Their obstinate refusal to accept other positions, Levin said, would eventually stifle the entire feminist critical movement, because they would be cut off from real dialogue with the larger body of critics. In academic matters it seems that one must maintain a balance: promote one’s own position, without denying the tenability of others’. Without that balance, we cripple and impoverish the whole academic enterprise.

But what have academic and intellectual pluralism to do with religious orthodoxy? Should we encourage pluralism in matters of faith and religion? And if so how much? Are there lines to be drawn?

I started thinking about this question some time ago, after reading Michael Healy’s article “How hobbits and company might really exist.” While whimsical and playful on one level, the piece addresses seriously the problem of religious pluralism. If we were to discover “non-human sentient life-forms” in the universe, Healy writes, “we must accept their existence as [God’s] will-and we must evangelize them.” My first thought on reading this was “Must we? Whatever for?” If God in His wisdom had created an entirely different species of souls, would He not have revealed Himself to them, albeit in a different way from how He has been revealed to us? Are we so arrogant as to assume that we are the only ones on whom truth has been conferred?

What about other faiths-Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and the myriad of world religions? Should we accept their religious positions as being as viable as our own and refrain from trying to bring their adherents to the Christian, or Catholic, Faith? The problem with answering “yes” to the last question is that it implies a loss of real belief. If we lose our belief in our Faith as the true Faith we lose belief itself. Religious pluralism is much more serious a thing than trendy political correctness which asks us to simply respect the views of people different from ourselves. Religious pluralism leads eventually to the admission that everything is permissible, nothing true.

To illustrate the disastrous effects of pluralism in religion, I refer to a very sharp little novel (albeit slightly dubious in its theology) by David Lodge, a Catholic novelist writing in England. How Far Can You Go? deals with the lives of a number of English Catholics prior to and in the wake of Vatican II. At the start of the novel, the young Catholics are fervent and committed to orthodoxy; by its end they are involved in the pro-contraception, sexual liberation, “free church” movement of the 1970’s. Liberation theology had turned the Catholic Church into a watered-down social awareness club-one that no longer believed in the absolute truth of its Faith, but sought to broaden its horizons by experimentation with anything and everything. By the end of the novel, Masses were being said by “ex-priests” and liturgical music was reduced to The Beatles. What is frightening about this novel is that such things did happen, as a direct result of trying to make the Church more open-minded and accepting of other positions and beliefs.

So how are Catholics meant to balance acceptance of others’ religion with a commitment to their own as absolutely true? Unfortunately I cannot even begin to answer this query. Living in a decidedly multi-cultural and multi-faith intellectual community, I am constantly faced with the balancing problem. I was at a dinner once with a young man who was a devout follower of Islam-very pious, very disciplined-indeed, moreso than I and the other Catholics present. I would not for a moment have thought of trying to convert him to Christianity. Wouldn’t it have been absurdly arrogant of me to suggest that his faith was insufficient to him? I think often of the story in C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle, when a young Calormen soldier, who had served the enemy state and enemy deity all his life, is joyfully and wholeheartedly welcomed into the communion of the saints in the “new Narnia.” Aslan tells him that he considers all his works done for the false god Tash as having been done for him, the true Lord-because the boy was pure of heart and devoted entirely to what he believed to be right and good. I have a hunch that if this devout Moslem and I were to die at the same moment God would say to him what Aslan said to the young man.

But the problem of religious pluralism is not solved by this anecdote. If we strive to be accepting of others’ faith(s) we are not guilty of arrogance and narrow-mindedness and are possibly better able to see God working through faiths we don’t understand; yet if we are too accepting of other faiths anything and everything becomes permissible.   We are called, yes, to make believers of all the world; but are we somewhere, somehow, permitted to make exceptions?

Joanna Bratten, who graduated from FUS in 1997, recently completed her MLitt in Shakespeare Studies at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, where she is now writing a PhD thesis, titled: “Perspectives on Marriage and Infidelity in Catholic Fiction from 1918.”