PLTS Faculty on Religious Pluralism

Gary Pence, Professor of Pastoral Theology (Retired)

My thinking and teaching about pastoral care and counseling are informed by both theology and psychology. Theologically, my thinking and teaching carry a distinctively Lutheran accent: my conviction about the inherent wonder and worth of every human being, a worth that requires no effort or enterprise to gain God’s loving approval. Pastoral care and counseling are shaped by the recognition that we simply are who we are, with all of our foibles and failings, and by the trust that God nonetheless loves us the way we are.

This recognition and trust imply a respect for various religious experiences, spiritual paths, and faith expressions. In classes at the GTU students represent a variety of Christian denominations and religious traditions—Lutheran, Catholic, Jewish and Buddhist. Together we share and compare our various understandings of human nature and of God. We construct how pastoral care might occur in our various faith communities, with their unique traditions, structures, and patterns of practice. We learn from one another.

Psychologically, “differentiation” is crucial to pastoral care and counseling. Well-differentiated persons enjoy the capacity to become unique, autonomous selves while remaining in warm and open relationship with others who may be quite different from themselves.

Differentiation makes religious pluralism not only tolerable but inviting. It starts with our families. Religious pluralism, like all pluralisms, is rooted in the pluralism of family life. In well-differentiated families, all the members can follow their own divergent life paths, while remaining loyal and loving to one another. If I am well- differentiated, I can enjoy, respect, and feel a kinship with you even though you are not a clone of me. I can practice a passionate Christianity and yet love and value you though you are a Buddhist, Muslim, or Sikh.

Pastoral care is not about judging another person’s experience or beliefs. The pastoral caregiver enters into another person’s experience and beliefs, joining the other person in exploring what these experiences and beliefs might mean and how they shape that person’s life. Try out this proposal: Mature Christians don’t fear religious diversity; they thrive on it.
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Ted Peters, Professor of Systematic Theology

We gain insight through engagement with those like us and unlike us. This principle led Lutherans of the previous generation to envision an ecumenical education. In the 1960s PLTS, along with other Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Jews, gave this ecumenical vision institutional form in what we know as the Graduate Theological Union. A consortium of nine seminaries including Baptists, Presbyterians, Unitarians, Methodists, Disciples of Christ, Episcopalians, United Church of Christ and Catholics trained in the Franciscan, Jesuit, Dominican, and Greek Orthodox traditions, the GTU has become the most extensive and thoroughly integrated ecumenical theological program in the world. Fired by commitment to the unity of the one Body of Christ, we at PLTS for over forty years have sought daily engagement with Christian communions differing from us, yet belonging to us.

Along with growth in multicultural awareness over recent decades, awareness has grown regarding the importance of understanding the world’s diversity of religious traditions and perspectives. Accordingly, the GTU has gradually added centers and institutes reflecting the world’s great traditions: the Center for Jewish Studies and the Institute for Buddhist Studies.

At the GTU we are developing a new respect while we enter into a new assessment of differing religious worldviews, fundamental beliefs, spiritual practices, and ethical commitments. Studying the history and practices of the world’s great religions along with our own traditions and beliefs expands our horizons and fertilizes growth in our own understanding.

Sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ will never cease to be an indelible sign of our Christian mission. As Lutheran Christians we believe the message—that the one God of the universe is a gracious God who freely offers salvation to all—is a message all will eventually want to hear. Yet, we place this message within a prior and comprehensive context wherein we and our non-Christian friends inhabit a common world crying for mutual respect, mutual care, and coordinated efforts toward peace and justice.

In Berkeley the preparation for ministry includes preparation in ecumenical engagement with a diversity of Christian communions as well as an ecumenic or inter-faith engagement with the diversity of religious traditions and perspectives.
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Thomas G. Rogers, Professor of Homiletics

PLTS preaching students (studying in the GTU in the heart of the Bay Area) are quite aware of the vast religious differences surrounding them. In California it would be rare, if not unheard of, for a Lutheran preacher to preach to a congregation consisting completely of lifelong Lutherans. Students respond to this situation differently. Some ask: “Isn’t the goal to be open-minded in a sermon? Aren’t other beliefs simply alternative embodiments of the same religious essence found in Lutheran Christianity?” By contrast others ask: “In an effort to preserve the purity of the gospel, is it not best to boldly announce in our preaching, that other beliefs are clearly at odds with Lutheran Christianity?”

The problem with both questions is that from the outset they inhibit the chance for mutual encounter. Both presume there are no genuine alternative traditions to be faced. Alternatives are taken to be either illusory (“other religions are the same”) or unworthy (“other religions fall short”). True dialogue acknowledges genuine religious differences. Such dialogue includes a level of risk, placing us in the path of potential change. We listen carefully both to grasp the alternate rationality of other traditions and to find the ways our tradition can be most deeply heard.

In my preaching classes I push students to consider where authentic preaching in a religiously pluralistic context actually begins. It is difficult for it to begin in the pulpit; it needs to begin in genuine inter- and intra-religious dialogue outside the pulpit. If preachers are not actively involved in authentic dialogue, their preaching is likely to founder on the rocks of assimilation (“all other beliefs are the same”) or denigration (“no other beliefs can matter”). As preaching becomes part of a larger dialogue, which acknowledges and respects differences, sermons in turn become far more capable of addressing the challenge of an increasing religious pluralism.
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Martha Stortz, Professor of Historical Theology and Ethics

Within blocks of the Graduate Theological Union you will find a Buddhist temple, a synagogue, a Quaker meetinghouse, an Episcopalian parish, a Congregational Church, and a Camaldolese monastery, which observes morning and evening prayer according to a strict interpretation of the Rule of St. Benedict. At PLTS religious pluralism is not merely an abstract idea, but a concrete part of our everyday context.

The immediacy of religious pluralism impacts the way we teach. Part of my teaching portfolio includes introductory courses in ancient and medieval church history. In courses populated with theologians whose names begin with the letter “A”—Augustine, Anselm, Abelard, Aquinas—we also treat the great medieval Arabic philosophers, Avicenna and Averroes, twelfth century Aristotelians.

The work of these two Muslim scholars, along with the thought of Jewish philosopher Maimonides, significantly impacted Christian theology through Thomas Aquinas. The cross-currents of influence between these thinkers reminds us of the importance of religion on the world’s stage, particularly as we consider the role of religion in the Middle East, in Central Asia, in Bosnia and Croatia, in Chechnya, in Indonesia. Studying the history of the Christian church shows us times when the world’s great religions worked in harmony, such as the great courts of Spain in the Middle Ages. History also illuminates times when they did not, such as the Crusades, the Inquisition, the medieval witch trials. As we learn more historically about the interplay of the world’s religions, we can better avoid past mistakes and pave the way for future cooperation.
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Edmond Yee, Professor of Asian Studies

I grew up in a multi-faith family. This experience has shaped both my spiritual and my professional lives. Within my family the celebration of different faiths did not cause conflicts, tensions, and struggles. Rather, these different faiths were continuously enriching. They enabled us, the practitioners, to realize, experience and embody the universality and particularity of each tradition.

My own life has convinced me that in order to teach students religious pluralism, I must enable them to develop an appreciation for and knowledge of religious typologies, study methods, and possible comparative tools. But religions cannot be taught only in the abstract.

Thus, as part of the learning process, I also take students into different religious communities, allowing them to see and experience the actual practice of different faiths by the people. Further, it is also necessary to call students’ attention to the subjects of faith, rituals and symbols, the meaning of which vary from tradition to tradition. Indeed, even within a tradition, rituals and symbols may have different levels of meaning. Take the symbol of the lotus, for example. In Buddhism it means purity on one level, but on another level it concerns the concept of karma. The lotus is also a national flower of India, a predominantly Hindu nation. Symbolizing beauty, prosperity, fertility and knowledge, the lotus is considered by Hindus to be sacred. In the Confucian tradition, it symbolizes the virtues of propriety, humility, righteousness and loyalty.

Ultimately, I intend to create an environment in the classroom wherein students can develop open and receptive hearts and minds. In this way, as in my family, genuine conversation, respectful critique and harmonious living can occur.
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