Practicing Pluralism (or, Why Your Brain Won’t Fall Out if You’re Open-Minded)

“Don’t be so open-minded that your brain falls out.”

I’ve had many people toss this pithy little turn of phrase in my direction many times over the years. Not once has one of them ever actually explained what they mean by it. Here’s how their message comes across:

  1. “People who disagree with me are stupid.”
  2. “I think I’m witty.”

If one were to give the benefit of the doubt to another who uses this phrase, one could say that they are expressing their distaste for relativism in religious truth, ethics, etc.

Relativism is the philosophical position that there is no absolute truth to a given matter. Therefore, what is true (or right) for one person is not necessarily true (or right) for another. Therefore one person (or culture) cannot pass judgment on another person’s (or culture’s) beliefs or ethics. Relativism is a cop-out and easily debunked.

Philosophically speaking, relativism is “hoist with its own petard” (a phrase that appears in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, among other places). A petard is an antiquated explosive weapon, a kind precursor to the grenade or landmine. If a petard were to detonate in the face of the one setting it, that soldier was said to be “hoist with his own petard” or “destroyed by his own weapon.”

Such is the fate of relativism as a philosophical theory: It is self-contradictory, refuted by its own argument, hoist with its own petard.

If one claims that there is no absolute truth in religion or morality, then one must hold this belief to the exclusion of all other beliefs. To the extent that relativists hold themselves to be correct in their relativism, they are absolutists. This is a logical contradiction.

Similarly, if one holds that all perspectives are equally valid and there is no ultimate truth (as relativists do), then they must necessarily regard absolutism as a philosophical perspective of equal value alongside their relativism. This too is a logical contradiction.

This is why we say that relativism is “hoist with its own petard.” It contradicts itself and falls apart under the weight of its own argument.

Relativism is a cop-out. It’s a way of ending dialogue when one party is sick and tired of debate over a particular issue. It could be argued that those who say “Don’t be so open-minded that your brain falls out” are actually encouraging people to stay engaged in the process of critical thinking, rather than take the easy way out (i.e. adopt relativism as a philosophically weak non-position).

If this were what folks meant by “Don’t be so open-minded that your brain falls out,” then I would heartily agree. However, I’ve noticed the opposite to be true. In my experience, those who use this phrase are falling into a similar trap as relativists: They are refusing to engage in the process of critical thinking. They are unwilling to consider viewpoints other than their own and are derisive of those who do. In sense it is their own brains that are “falling out” (or “being stifled”) due to minds that are too closed to engage in rigorous debate. Ironically, they fall into the same hole as relativists, but from the opposite side.

A further mistake they often make is their failure to distinguish between relativism and pluralism. We’ve already defined relativism as the position that there is no absolute truth, therefore what is true for one person is not necessarily true for another. A robust pluralism, on the other hand, states that there is an ultimate truth, but it cannot be fully known by one person or captured by a single perspective.

Take the parable of the elephant, as told by Ramakrishna Paramahamsa:

A number of blind men came to an elephant. Somebody told them that it was an elephant. The blind men asked, ‘What is the elephant like?’ and they began to touch its body. One of them said: ‘It is like a pillar.’ This blind man had only touched its leg. Another man said, ‘The elephant is like a husking basket.’ This person had only touched its ears. Similarly, he who touched its trunk or its belly talked of it differently. In the same way, he who has seen the Lord in a particular way limits the Lord to that alone and thinks that He is nothing else.

Retrieved from

The relativist would say that there is no elephant and each blind man was equal to his counterparts in accuracy. The pluralist would say that the elephant is real and its reality is greater than each blind man’s individual experience.

Another way I have described pluralism to my students in the past is to imagine a statue illuminated by spotlights. A light placed on one side of the statue will illuminate some features while leaving others in shadow. A light placed on the otherside will have an opposite effect. The relativist would say that there is no statue. A reductionist might limit discussion to those parts of the statue that are illuminated by both lights (e.g. those who reduce conversations about religion to discussion of the “golden rule”, an ethical principle that appears in multiple religious traditions). Pluralists, on the other hand, see the statue and take note of what is illuminated, where the lights overlap, and what parts remain in shadow.

Pluralism is the virtue of humility, applied to the life of the mind. Practicing pluralism requires of us a high degree of empathy and goodwill for one’s interlocutors. It requires that we remain critically engaged with one another and honest with ourselves. Being a pluralist is a moral commitment to love one’s intellectual neighbors as oneself. Being an open-minded pluralist, in this sense, is the exact opposite of one’s brain falling out. I would daresay it is the human mind at its best.

Reverence for Reality

Photo by Kurt Löwenstein Educational Center International Team

I’ve often felt sorry for Abimelech.  He strikes me as a stand-up guy who got the short end of the stick.  We first meet him in the 20th chapter of the book of Genesis.  He’s named as the king of the Philistines who lives in Gerar.  One day, a rather attractive woman moves to town, supposedly with her brother.  She makes a splash on the social scene and turns the heads of some very well-placed individuals.  Before long, she’s dating Abimelech himself, who is quite taken with her.  Little does he know that she too is taken, but not in a good way.  The woman’s “brother” turns out to be her husband who is using her as part of a con-game that they’ve been running in several different towns.

Abimelech, an apparently decent fellow who’s not into that sort of thing, demands an explanation.  Abraham, the brother-husband, replies, “I did it because I thought, There is no fear of God at all in this place”.

No fear of God?  That doesn’t seem to be the case.  First of all, I should explain that I tend to cringe at the word fear being used in this sense.  The actual Hebrew word means awe or reverence.  We, on the other hand, tend to associate it with dread or terror.  Abraham was insisting that he saw no reverence for the sacred in the house of Abimelech.  Yet, Abimelech seems to be a rather spiritually sensitive person.  One might even call him a mystic.  He hears God speaking to him in dreams and responds without hesitation.  If anything, Abimelech comes across as a much more spiritually centered person than Abraham the con-man.

Abraham saw no reverence for the divine in Abimelech.  I propose a theory that it was actually Abraham’s own prejudice that prevented him from seeing the truth about the kind of person that Abimelech really was.  Abraham was accustomed to seeing “foreigners” and “outsiders” in a certain way.  Abraham thought that he, as the exalted ancestor of the chosen people, was the sole-possessor of “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” about God.  As a result, he was blind to the reality of reverence in Abimelech’s life.

Don’t we do this all the time?  We get used to seeing things in a certain way.  We come up with interpretive schemas that we impose on reality in order to categorically organize our perceptions of the world.  We want to know who is “in” and who is “out”, who is “saved” and who is “damned”, who are the “good guys” and who are the “bad guys”.  This is a natural way of looking at things (especially for kids) but it causes problems for adults who know through experience that life is never that simple.  If we stay committed to such binary thinking in the face of more nuanced evidence, prejudice closes our minds and hardens our hearts against reality and reverence.  We fail to keep in step with what God is doing in the world and end up becoming the worst versions of ourselves.

Especially in this fast-paced and interconnected world of the 21st century, it is incumbent upon us to remain open to the varieties of reverence we may encounter in those who are different from us.  When I walk into a situation or relationship with the assumption that God is neither present nor active in another person’s life, I am more likely to misconstrue God’s presence and activity in my own life.

Through openness of heart and mind, let us maintain our reverence for what is sacred and celebrate together the incredible diversity we find in this universe.

Ways Through Time to Eternity

Fascinating thoughts on pluralism by philosopher John Hick. 

Warning: Liberal warm fuzzies ahead.  If you don’t want those, feel free to stop reading now.

The future I am thinking of is accordingly one in which what we now call the different religions will constitute the past history of different emphases and variations within a global religious life. I do not mean that all men everywhere will be overtly religious, any more than they are today. I mean rather that the discoveries now taking place by men of different faiths of central common ground, hitherto largely concealed by the variety of cultural forms in which it was expressed, may eventually render obsolete the sense of belonging to rival ideological communities. Not that all religious men will think alike, or worship in the same way or experience the divine identically. On the contrary, so long as there is a rich variety of human cultures—and let us hope there will always be this-we should expect there to be correspondingly different forms of religious cult, ritual and organization, conceptualized in different theological doctrines. And so long as there is a wide spectrum of human psychological types—and again let us hope that there will always be this—we should expect there to be correspondingly different emphases between, for example, the sense of the divine as just and as merciful, between karma and bhakti; or between worship as formal and communal and worship as free and personal. Thus we may expect the different world faiths to continue as religio-cultural phenomena, though phenomena which are increasingly influencing one another’s development. The relation between them will then perhaps be somewhat like that now obtaining between the different denominations of Christianity in Europe or the United States. That is to say, there will in most countries be a dominant religious tradition, with other traditions present in varying strengths, but with considerable awareness on all hands of what they have in common; with some degree of osmosis of membership through their institutional walls; with a large degree of practical cooperation; and even conceivably with some interchange of ministry.

Beyond this the ultimate unity of faiths will be an eschatological unity in which each is both fulfilled and transcended—fulfilled in so far as it is true, transcended in so far as it is less than the whole truth. And indeed even such fulfilling must be a transcending; for the function of a religion is to bring us to a right relationship with the ultimate divine reality, to awareness of our true nature and our place in the Whole, into the presence of God. In the eternal life there is no longer any place for religions; the pilgrim has no need of a way after he has finally arrived. In St. John’s vision of the heavenly city at the end of our Christian scriptures it is said that there is no temple—no Christian church or chapel, no Jewish synagogue, no Hindu or Buddhist temple, no Muslim mosque, no Sikh Gurdwara. . . . For all these exist in time, as ways through time to eternity.

John Hick, God and the Universe of Faiths

The Hour Has Come

Today’s sermon from Boonville Pres.

The texts are John 12:20-33, Jeremiah 31:31-34, and Psalm 87.

Click here to listen to this sermon at

Whenever my friends and acquaintances find out that I’m a minister, it usually opens up some very interesting avenues of conversation.  This will sound weird, but the very first thing that most people do is apologize.  I haven’t quite figured out why they do that, but it happens about seven times out of ten.

Once that’s out of the way, the conversation usually gets interesting.  I don’t know of any other job that generates the kind of small talk that this one does.  When accountants meet people at parties, I doubt that folks immediately start talking about their bank account balance.  When teachers meet people in public, I doubt that folks immediate start talking about their high school GPA.  However, when I meet people out in the world, I find that many folks almost immediately want to talk about their personal beliefs and practices.

I get to learn a lot that way.  I learn about peoples’ individual life stories.  I learn about the way they see the world.  I learn about the importance that spirituality holds for most people, even those who don’t go to church.  Most of all, I learn about the way we Christians are perceived by the rest of the world.  I find that a lot of people admire us for our commitment to a particular way of faith but don’t want to limit their own spiritual journey to such a small circle of beliefs and morals.

We Christians have done plenty of things throughout our two-thousand-year history to establish the idea that ours is a small-minded and judgmental faith.  Even today, in the twenty-first century, those who most loudly and proudly broadcast their Christianity to a national audience tend to be rather one-sided in their view of the world.  It makes me sad sometimes that the incredible depth and diversity of our tradition seems to have become lost in all the hubbub.  I really can’t blame people who reject Christianity on the grounds that being Christian (from their point of view) means being like these big-time televangelists or members of the Religious Right.  I don’t blame them.  If I hadn’t met certain people or read certain books at just the right moment in my life, I would probably think as they do.

More and more, I’m also finding Christians within the church who operate with a similar mentality.  They value their Christian faith but wish there was some way they could practice it that is more thoughtful and less judgmental.  They hate feeling like they have to close their hearts and minds to the world in order to be faithful believers but don’t know of any other way to be truly Christian.  Some of these folks slog it out, longing for something better.  Others eventually give up and just leave altogether, thinking there’s no place for people like them in church.

I want to tell you today that I think there is another way.  Whether you’re sitting in church this morning, hanging on in quiet desperation, or listening to me on the radio at home, thinking the roof would cave in if you ever tried to walk through the door of a church building, I want you to know that, whoever you are, there is room for you to be you in Christ’s church.

If the church has failed to send that message clearly, it’s our own fault.  We need to learn how to be more like Jesus and do the kinds of things he did, like the one we heard about earlier in this service in our reading from the gospel according to John.

The story opens as Jesus is visiting Jerusalem with massive throngs of pilgrims on their way to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Passover.  Mixed in with this group are a number of Greek people.  They weren’t Jewish by blood, but they had come to believe in and respect the monotheistic faith of Judaism rather than the many gods worshiped by their own people.  These Greek folks wanted to take part in the Passover festivities as well, but they were only allowed to go so far.  Jewish law prevented them from entering the great Jerusalem temple because of their race.  There was one, single area set aside for them at the very farthest back end of the temple.  We would call the nosebleed section.  They called it the Court of the Gentiles.  Unfortunately, even this one distant space had been taken away from them and filled up with all kinds of vendors exchanging foreign currency and selling animals for the ritual sacrifices.  Feeling like the odd ones out, these Greek folks were definitely getting the message that there was no place for people like them in the “church” of their day.

In the midst of all this going on, these Greek people somehow managed to hear that there was this remarkable new rabbi named Jesus who happened to be in Jerusalem for the festival.  They were intrigued by what they heard and wanted to meet him, so they tracked down someone from Jesus’ entourage.  They found Philip and said, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”  I can’t imagine what the look on Philip’s face must have been in that moment.  Why would these foreigners want anything to do with Jesus, the Jewish Messiah?  Philip was confused enough that he thought he needed a second opinion, so he went and talked to Andrew, another one of Jesus’ disciples.  Even together, they still couldn’t figure out what was going on, so they decided to bring the issue to Jesus himself.  Jesus’ reaction to this news probably shocked them even more.  He said, “The hour has come.”

What does that mean?  Well, there’s a lot of talk about Jesus’ “hour” in John’s gospel.  Early on, when Mary asks Jesus to show his power by changing water into wine at a wedding, Jesus refuses (at first) saying, “My hour has not yet come.”  Later on, when people try to get Jesus to use another Jewish holiday as a publicity platform, Jesus again refuses (at first) saying, “My hour has not yet come.”  Finally, when he had enraged one crowd to the point where they tried to kill him, the text notes that they were unsuccessful because “his hour had not yet come.”  It was like the whole book had been building toward something big that was about to happen.  What would it be?  Maybe when his hour came, Jesus would finally confront the corrupt religious and political leadership in Jerusalem.  Maybe when his hour came, he would go kick Pontius Pilate and his Roman thugs out of the holy city once and for all.  Maybe when his hour came, Jesus would restore the nation of Israel to the glory of its golden age under King Solomon.

But no, it turns out that Jesus’ hour came when these no-account foreigners came looking for him.  Greek people.  What’s the matter with Jesus?  Didn’t he realize who he was?  Didn’t he remember where his loyalties lay?  He was Jewish.  He belonged to his own people.  His mission, as the Jewish Messiah, was to be with other Jews and help them, not these foreigners.  Yet, when these Greek people seek him out, Jesus says, “This is it.  The hour has come.  This is why I’m here.  This is what it’s all about.”

Huh?  Don’t be ridiculous, Jesus.  What about us?  What about our people?  Our security?  Our prosperity?  Our survival?  When times get tough, human beings tend to think like that.  We want to batten down the hatches and circle the wagons.  We instinctively want to protect what’s ours.  Look out for number one.  Be responsible.  This is how evolution has hard-wired us.  Truthfully, it has allowed to survive as long as have.  But, Jesus says, there comes a time, a moment, an hour, when all of that needs to be set aside.  There is an hour for opening up, reaching out, and taking risks.  These are the moments when evolution actually happens and we take small steps or giant leaps toward our destiny.  In such moments, ironically, it is our evolutionary instinct for survival that may actually be killing us.  Jesus said it like this, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”

We, as individuals, churches, institutions, communities, countries, a planet, are meant to be so much more than single grains.  We are meant to bear much fruit.  We are meant to grow and evolve beyond what we have been.  For Jesus himself, this meant pursuing a vision of the kingdom of God as a spiritual community that was multi-national and multi-ethnic.  Even though he was a faithful Jew, he realized that God’s activity in the world was bigger than Judaism and the special interests of his own nation.  We take it for granted today that God’s “got the whole world in [God’s] hands,” but that was still a relatively new idea in Jesus’ day.  It got him and the early Christians in a lot of trouble.  Some, like Jesus, even paid for that vision with their lives.

Jesus said, “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”  He didn’t say all Jews, Presbyterians, Protestants, Americans, or Christians.  Jesus said all people.  This meshes pretty well with what we heard earlier today in our Old Testament reading from the prophet Jeremiah.  Jeremiah talked about his vision of a new covenant that God would make with people.  He said, speaking in God’s name, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”  Jeremiah said that, under this new covenant, we will all know the Lord and the essence of the Bible will not be carved in stone or printed in books but written on our hearts.  Whose hearts?  The hearts of all people, from the least to the greatest, for we will all know the Lord.  Christians have believed for thousands of years that this new covenant is exactly what Jesus came to accomplish.  This theme also appears in Psalm 87, which we read from this morning as well.  That poem describes how all kinds of foreign nations, like Egypt, Babylon, and Ethiopia will one day be counted as citizens of Zion and included among God’s people.  You could say, based on these prophetic visions, that the kingdom of God is meant to be an all-inclusive trip.

So, this is why I think, as I mentioned earlier, that there is another way to be Christian in this world.  We are not obligated to sell out to narrow, one-sided interpretations of our religion.  There is room in this church for everyone.  Whoever you are and however you are hearing this today, I want you to know there is room in this church for you.

I think there’s also a challenge for all of us in Jesus’ words.  I think it’s worth continually asking ourselves whether our “hour has come.”  Are we currently, in our personal or collective lives, at a point where, in order for evolution to happen, we need to let go of our evolutionary instinct for survival and takes risks?  Back in Jesus’ day, it was a moment for reaching out beyond one’s ethnic and national identity to grab hold of a religious vision for a spiritual community that was open to Greeks as well as Jews.  During the millennia since then, the Christian church has continued to wrestle with other issues.  We have worked to build a church where people of different races are welcome to worship side by side as equal partners.  We have opened our doors to acknowledge members of other churches and denominations as friends in Christ.  We have opened our pulpits for women to preach the gospel and administer the sacraments.  Each of these developments involved a certain amount of risk in its day, and there were those along the way who resisted, often citing Scripture to justify their fear, but I think we can all agree that each leap of faith was one more positive step in the direction of evolution and we are a richer church today for having taken those steps.

What challenges are we now facing as a church?  Once again, we’ve fallen on hard times.  It’s true that church attendance in this country is not what it used to be.  Many churches are tightening their belts and trying to do the best they can with shrinking financial resources.  A lot of folks are worried for our future and our survival.  They think we should circle the wagons and batten the hatches.  Some think mission and service projects should take second place to institutional survival.  Some have shut their ears to new ideas or new interpretations of ancient truths.

There are two particular areas where I think the hour has come for us as Christians in this generation.  In these two areas, I believe we are being called to open our hearts, minds, and doors just as Jesus opened his to those Greek foreigners who came looking for him in Jerusalem.

The first is one you’ve heard me mention before and will hear me mention again.  I don’t mind admitting that I am personally passionate about this issue.  I’m talking of course about the full-inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people in the life of our church.  Last year, the Presbyterian Church voted to open the doors for these folks to be ordained as pastors, elders, and deacons in our denomination.  This summer, our General Assembly will decide whether or not these same people are allowed to get married in our churches.  I think this issue, in particular, holds a key to growing our little congregation here in Boonville.  For lack of a better term, I think we have a niche market here.  There are plenty of churches in Boonville who have bigger budgets and flashier programs than we do, but there are not very many who share our convictions about the full and equal inclusion of people of all sexual orientations.  Believe it or not, there is a gay community in our neck of the woods and there are people in it who are longing to find a spiritual home where they know they will be fully loved and accepted for who they are.

The second area where I think our hour has come is in our relationship toward people of other religions or no religion at all.  We live in a society of unparalleled diversity and interconnection.  Our neighbors aren’t just Protestant, Catholic, or Jewish anymore.  They’re Buddhist, Hindu, Atheist, Taoist, and Muslim.  We have the opportunity to learn and grow by listening to one another and casting our neighbors in a positive light.

For the last ten years, we’ve struggled with a particularly strong bout of Islamophobia in this country.  The fear and anger generated in the wake of 9/11 has spread beyond the fanatics of Al Qaida and tainted our perception of all Muslims.  We need to unstop our ears to the voice of progressive Muslim clerics like Feisal Abdul Rauf of Cordoba House (aka the Ground Zero Mosque) in New York.  Leaders like him are calling for peace among their own people and opening the doors to dialogue, respect, and learning.  When we hear the Muslim call to prayer from the minarets, let’s respond by adding our Christian ‘Amen’ to their ‘Allahu Akbar.’

The way to fuller and greater life for ourselves, our church, and our country does not lie in circling the wagons and battening the hatches.  We need to realize that the hour has come for us to take risks and reach out in the name and Spirit of Jesus, who has promised to draw all people to himself in the all-inclusive kingdom of heaven-on-earth.