Pluralism, the will of God

This is the first of three articles for Interfaith Week written by PCN members. Its author, Alan Race from south London has written books about Interfaith Dialogue and Religious Pluralism. 

Pluralism, the will of God

One meaning of the term ‘globalisation’ is that we are being brought into contact with one another – as individuals, tribes, cultures, religions – as never before. In my newspaper recently, there were stories with Christian, Hindu, Muslim and Jewish references.

We could quote the great Jewish teacher Abraham Joshua Heschel who already in 1965 entitled his augural lecture as a Jewish visiting professor at the Christian ecumenical Union Theological Seminary in New York, ‘No religion is an island.’ Heschel also became passionately involved with the US civil rights movement of the 1960s and walked hand-in-hand with Martin Luther King in the marches. He became passionate about dialogue between the religions. ‘The religions of the world,’ he wrote, ‘are no more self-sufficient, no more independent, no more isolated than individuals or nations. Energies, experiences and ideas that come to life outside the boundaries of a particular religion or all religions continue to challenge and to affect every religion.’

Heschel went further in his estimate of the place of religions in the world. He wrote: ‘Perhaps it is the will of God that in this aeon there should be diversity in our forms of devotion and commitment to Him. In this aeon diversity of religions is the will of God.’ That’s a startling statement for 1965. It is not just that many religions exist and have to be accounted for politically and socially; Heschel’s is a theological statement – the existence of the many is the will of God. But notice that ‘Perhaps’. The thought of the diversity of religions being the will of God opened a door but remained in fact a possibility only. But much has happened since then.

For 10 years between 1945 and 1955 Heschel taught at Jewish Theological Seminary, which was across the street from the Christian Union Theological Seminary where Paul Tillich, the giant liberal Protestant theologian of the mid 20th century was teaching. We know that they conducted a shared colloquium in 1958 and respected one another a great deal. Tillich’s final book was the result of dialogue with a Japanese Buddhist intellectual, Professor Yasaka Takagi, and it contained a climactic sentence which has been cited many times. It goes like this:

‘In the depth of every living religion there is a point at which the religion itself loses importance, and that to which it points breaks through its particularity, elevating it to spiritual freedom and with it to a vision of the spiritual presence in other expressions of the ultimate meaning of man’s existence.’ (1962)

This was another stunning opening into another way of theological thinking, and it led Tillich at the end of his life into saying that if he was starting his life’s work again he would do so in dialogue with the other great religions. That too was a bold statement in the mid 1960s. Since then the dialogue between religions has accomplished a great deal, though many feel that there has been a stepping back from it in recent times with the growth of conservative thinking across the board. Dialogue summons us towards a vision of spiritual presence in others outside our own bounded walls. Whether we share in practical action, in religious experience or in intellectual enquiry, interreligious dialogue is here to stay and it heralds the next stage in what it means to live out of religious conviction. I cannot be who I am without the other.

Alan Race


1 On 15/11/2016 Chris in Ledbury wrote:

Thanks for an interesting post. I found your references back to Heschel and Tillich fascinating because they illustrate an evolving conception of God, which finds expression in differing forms of religion.

For Heschel, God seems to be an external entity capable of intervention withn our world. Whilst, Tillich described God in more ontological terms; ‘the ground of our being’. However, for those who don’t subscribe to a religious belief in God, the idea that pluralism is defined as ‘the will of God’ is essentially meaningless.

Pluralism can surely exist without ascription to a god. It is a concept devised by man to describe a multiplicity of religious expressions. As such, as a term, it is also capable of including states of religious disbelief and doubt including secularism, agnostism and atheism.

The meaning of language shifts over time and it was certainly the case that the early emphasis of interfaith dialogue was to establish a common buttress aginst growing Western secularism. However, given the continued growth in such secularism, some in the West may not agree that pluralism is ‘the will of God’ today.

As more people become increasingly aware of the cultural construction of religions, pluralism may alternatively be expressed by some as ‘the will of man’.

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