By Rick McClatchy
I attended the Parliament of the World’s Religions expecting to meet many people from different world religions, which I did. It was announced that 7,500 people from 220 different religious groups were represented, which gives an impression of the broad type of religious diversity present. However, I am not so sure that describing this meeting as a gathering of diverse religions really does justice to the event.
Certainly, there are elements that suggested great religious diversity as seen in the multiplicity of revered religious prophets/leaders, sacred texts, rituals, beliefs, customs, dress, and even hair styles. In fact, the differences were the things that first grabbed your attention about the gathering. However, the longer I listened to the people, I was struck by a deeper unity that was running through the crowd. That deeper unity centered around the importance of living a life of compassion, care, and connection with all people and all the life upon this planet.
This meeting has reinforced in my thinking that we might could think of religion in another way. We could talk of two major world religious trends—totalitarian religion and pluralistic religion.
Totalitarian religion has two major characteristics. First, it believes that it alone possess all the truth, and therefore its way of living is the only legitimate way. Those outside the group are ignorant at best or evil at worst. Second, it seeks to suppress different ways of believing and acting. It focuses upon control and power over others, stressing conformity to its official dogma and rules. Those failing to conform can be subject to silencing and exclusion, and in some cases state-sponsored discrimination, persecution, or genocide.
It is this combination of belief and action which characterizes totalitarian religion. There are people who believe their religion is the only true way, but they are willing to allow other religions to exists unmolested, which places them outside the totalitarian group. Totalitarians, on the other hand, believe differing religious perspectives must be suppressed or annihilated. While this crusading spirit of totalitarian religion can be found at least in everyone of what we traditionally refer to as the “major world religions,” it can also be found in various secular ideologies, such as Stalinism, Maoism, and fascism.
Pluralistic religion works in helping diverse groups get acquainted and come together around common aspirations. This work does not require religious syncretism or relativism. It is not the same as theological pluralism, which has to do with people of different religions coming to a common understanding about God, which allows them to affirm the validity of other religions. Now some in the pluralistic religious trend might take this approach, while others will not. However, all will try to find common ways to work together.
In the civil arena, they would be civil pluralist, encouraging a diverse society to embrace its differences while striving for the common good. The people that I met at the Parliament of the World’s Religions were people of the pluralistic religion. I think that is what Baptists at their best have tried to be in the past and will do so in the future.
In 1995, Rick McClatchy started serving as State Coordinator for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Oklahoma and moved in 2003 to San Antonio to serve as the State Coordinator for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Texas.