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Diversity or Pluralism: What’s the difference? And why does it matter? - Carl Carmichael

This is the first of a series of my weekly messages (as my turn to write comes along) to explore the content of a book given to me by our Executive Director Jordan Bishop, titled “Interfaith Leadership – A Primer”, written by Eboo Patel, the founder and President of Interfaith Youth Core, an international organization which teaches Interfaith relationships to youth. But Patel’s book is unique, for it gives direction and purpose to guide interfaith leaders on how to be successful at leading interfaith organizations. This week I will explore the book’s teachings about the difference between diversity and pluralism.

In Patel’s book, where religious diversity is concerned, Patel references Diana Eck, author of a book titled “A New Religious America: How a Christian Country Has Become The World’s Most Religiously Diverse Nation”, who says that phrases like “celebrate diversity” and “diversity is our strength” misunderstand the meaning of “diversity”, undeservedly investing it with a positive meaning. Diversity, according to Eck, ought to be understood as a neutral term with a range of possible consequences, everything from conflict to cooperation. When diversity is proactively engaged for positive ends, Eck calls it “pluralism”. Simply put, diversity is a fact, while pluralism is an achievement, one that must be worked for diligently. This distinction has escaped me in the past, when, as I celebrated WIN’s diversity, I was missing out on how WIN is and needs to be pluralistic. It is not enough for us to be simply a diverse group of faith communities that have somehow come together to form an association. We must learn about each other’s faith beliefs, resist the tendency to argue the rights or wrongs of some other person’s beliefs, and learn to come together on common goals.

Simply throwing people with diverse ideologies together does not necessarily lead to good relationships. For positive relationships to emerge, certain conditions must be met: equal status among the various parties, cooperation between the groups, and common goals. Pluralism, then, is the engagement of diversity toward a positive end. John Murray, author of the book “We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections On The American Proposition” defines pluralism as: “the coexistence within the one political community of groups who hold divergent and incompatible views with regard to religious questions, therefore pluralism implies a community within which there must be agreement and consensus, some set of principles must motivate the general participation of all religious groups, despite their dissensions, in the oneness of the community. On the other hand, these common principles must not hinder the maintenance by each group of its own different identity.”

In his book, Patel writes that “what is important is building bridges of understanding, commonality and cooperation”. The larger insights of this work come from a simple realization, that “faith communities are attempting to illustrate and live out our faiths; that our colleagues, participants in other religions, often reverent individuals, were doing the same with theirs. They were happy to work with us, as we with them, towards constructing and maintaining a community, a friendly and cooperative community, religiously diverse”.

To achieve pluralism, faith communities must recognize the “interfaith triangle” where attitudes, knowledge, and relationships form the three sides. The more we know about a particular faith community, the more likely we are to have a favorable attitude. The more favorable our attitude, the more open we will be to new relationships. As the triangle becomes complete, interfaith service projects and sharing of faith beliefs become more and more common, until mutual cooperation and consensus about peace and justice issues and service to communities become the result. I see this happening within the Interfaith Network, evidenced by things like outreach and assistance to the Wind River Reservation, support for the Wyoming Hunger Initiative, working with the group Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, a sharing of common goals like protection of the environment, and support for ending all aspects of discrimination and systemic racism. WIN champions these mutual goals and together, we make the world a little smaller, a little safer, a little more complete, and a little more compatible. In our diversity, we find strength, in our pluralism, we find commonality, in our consensus we find mutuality. The vision that WIN celebrates, ”Fear Not! Be Bold! Build Bridges! Do Justice! is a clear statement of who we are and what we stand for. As Eboo Patel would say, “This isn’t a special project: this is core to our mission. We need to put up the resources to do it right! The time for Interfaith leaders has come!”

Peace and blessings,

Carl R. Carmichael, Chair, Wyoming Interfaith Network

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