Religious Pluralism Dialogue

Cultic Studies Journal, Volume 2, Number 2, 1985, pages 329-339

Religious Pluralism, Dialogue, and the Ethics of Social Influence

Eugene C. Kreider

Religious Pluralism: The Scope of a Problem

Religious diversity is an acknowledged cultural and historical fact today. This diversity, however, does not consist of a variety of independent religious and faith systems existing side by side. Rather, it consists of a multiplicity of commitments, which constitutes the matrix of a broad religious pluralism Within this matrix different and often conflicting religious commitments struggle for identity as they coexist and strive to find a hermeneutical principle through which to interpret meaningfully the interrelationship of differing beliefs and life patterns.

That pluralism has spawned many areas of interest. One area is diversity of impart upon the traditional religious enterprise. Another area is the appraisal of the truth-claims and religious exclusiveness represented in the differing religious experiences. Still another area of interest lies in evaluating differing views about God, the world, and the way of salvation. Also, there is an interest in the effect of pluralism upon the internal and external structures of individual religious systems. Underlying all these areas of interest, however, is a concern for the impact pluralism has on the questions of identity and the motivating of religious commitment.

These interests have led to a variety of approaches and strategies for investigating the complexity of religious phenomena today (1). Such approaches and strategies range from descriptions of different sorts of independent religious experiences to suggestions about consensus within the differences. Nevertheless, in all approaches and strategies can be found either an intuitive urge or some recognized need that leads to a form of “interfaith dialogue.”

The stated purposes of interfaith dialogue vary according to those involved in this dialogue. In the main, however, there are five purposes, each of which has underlying or subpurposes supporting it. First, dialogue provides a way of understanding someone else’s religious commitment. This purpose helps to satisfy an informational interest. It allows one to give and receive information, to “get the facts” and thereby to understand. Second, dialogue seeks consensus. With this purpose dialogue attempts to find common ground mutuality, if not agreement in the different religious groups. That common ground could be any number of elements within given religious systems. Third, dialogue invites conversation about differences in such a way that the integrity of all elements in the religious system can be established more firmly and the believer’s identity established more concretely. Fourth, dialogue affords opportunity for reconciliation among people and groups that have conflicting beliefs, lifestyles, and rituals. This purpose, like the second, may find expression both practically and theoretically in the conjunction of religious symbols and in their cultural expression. Fifth, dialogue assumes that a vital religious pluralism is the matrix in which truth is sought, claimed, and translated into historically and culturally defined beliefs and patterns of life.

These purposes for dialogue between and among religious groups are not listed here in an order of priority, nor are they mutually exclusive in their functions. Nevertheless, each represents an emphasis and makes its own claim for usefulness.

In this paper I will argue that it is the fifth purpose for dialogue that provides a way for understanding and dealing with problems about the ethics of social influence that have emerged and are continuing to emerge in contemporary society.

In homogeneous settings where religious/cultural values are held in common, ethicality is primarily a question of the clarity of perception. In such settings, the clearer one perceives the determinants of lifestyle, die more ethical can one’s actions be in respect to self and others. In heterogeneous settings where pluralism describes the religious values, ethicality is more a matter of the sobriety of judgment. Clarity about the ethicality of any action may be severely limited or totally wanting. In either case, the course of action must be determined by the best judgments one can make.

I view the concern about the ethics of social influence in a religiously plural society under discussion here to be essentially a hermeneutical matter bringing to bear the best judgments possible descriptively and prescriptively about the character and effect of religious forms of social influence.

An Imbalance in the Tripartite Structure of Contemporary

Religious Experience: The Focus of a Problem

Religious experience is always characterized by a set of beliefs or teachings, rituals for expressing these beliefs in the community of faith, and lifestyle patterns for living out beliefs and rituals in the broader social community. Usually the beliefs are understood to come from the object of one’s religious orientation, a supreme being or value, and are described as a revelation. Rituals are the result of human ways of perceiving, organizing, and interpreting revelation, and thereby offer primary anthropological and sociological data for studying and knowing about the religious experience. The lifestyle patterns involve an intersection of the religious commitment of one community with society in general in such a way as to raise the question of norms for social intercourse broadly conceived. Such patterns describe the question of ethics.

The inner vitality of any religious experience and the way it is viewed by society in general depend on how its beliefs, rituals, and lifestyles come together to give it character and definition. It is important that these three characteristics of religious experience be balanced and converge supportively, exercising corrective influence over each other. The psychosocial health of the religious community needs such balance, and adequate public discourse about religious experience depends upon a full account of its characteristics.

Historically, an imbalance in attention to belief, ritual and lifestyle has produced distortion of the religious experience both in the inner circle of that experience and in the judgment society makes about that experience. When belief outweighs attention to ritual and lifestyle, the Holy War is often the result, or a mild form of it in aggressive tactics motivated by convictions of superiority. All is done for the sake of perceived dogmatic good. The doctrinal end justifies any ritual or ethical means available. When ethics outweighs attention to belief and ritual, uncritical or unreflective lifestyle patterns often emerge out of the peculiarities of the inner vitality of the religious experience usually dominated by forceful leadership. When ritual outweighs attention to belief and lifestyle, the practice of the religious experience often is the cause of its demise in the destruction of individuals and the religious system within the broader society. Any imbalance affects both the religious group itself and its social context.

The contemporary religious movements that have achieved public visibility in the last two decades, and before, are examples of various imbalances in beliefs, rituals and lifestyles. The imbalance, especially in the late 1960s and early 1970s, was one of over-attention to lifestyle and ritual.

The mid-sixties in America were the years that experienced a mushrooming of religious activity and fervor, producing many of the more recent contemporary religious movements and stimulating further growth in movements that had their beginnings earlier. That activity and fervor answered a need of the moment, namely, a way of renewal out of the bankruptcy of the hippie experiment in the decade of the 1960s.

Public knowledge about the rise of the new movements and their activities depended largely upon what was available in the media and upon what could be gleaned from word-of-mouth reporting. It would be fair to say that more was learned about the activities and rituals of these movements than about what they taught or about what their devotees believed. Moreover, there is very little evidence in what we have learned about the groups emerging in the 1960s that beliefs played a critical role in the recruitment of members or in the overall development of the group. Furthermore, public knowledge seems to indicate that as the dominant fear of the new religions had to do with lifestyle matters, so the beliefs of the groups exercised little corrective influence, if any, over ethics and ritual.

Interestingly, and appropriately, the public response to these early expressions of the new religions was an attempt to restore the critical and collective function of belief within the religious experience by challenging what were perceived as extremes in lifestyle and ritual and by calling attention to the content of belief and its importance in the whole religious experience.

The public got to know this challenge best through voluntary and involuntary deprogramming and other forms of "exit counseling.” Aside from the judgment one might make about the appropriateness or inappropriateness of deprogramming and the questions of civil and religious liberties raised in the wake of this phenomenon, it is clear that those attempts to deal with “the problem of the cults” were essentially attempts to give proper attention to the place of beliefs in a person’s experience and thereby to restore a balance between lifestyle, ritual and belief.

Reactions to deprogramming were varied. Supporters, of course, claimed that such activity was a valid way to counter the alleged manipulative and fraudulent recruitment practices of some religious groups and the socialization techniques by which these groups controlled members, not to mention the extreme form of total control over individuals in the destructive cults. Those who opposed deprogramming claimed that this activity violated an individual’s religious liberty and the right of fine choice in respect to involvement in any religious organization or group.

Moreover, those who championed the right of free choice in determining religious affiliation have interpreted such affiliation by the so-called “role theory,” which focuses on how and not why people join new religious groups. This motivational model identifies a “match” between the needs or motive of the new recruit and the offerings of the new religious group. Religious affiliation is, then, construed as “a social process whereby the group functions to meet both the individual’s needs and to shape those needs" (2). In such a sociological perspective is further evidence of the imbalance of belief and lifestyle resulting from over-attention to lifestyle. Empirical evidence in a study of the Unification Church shows that “the assumption of active membership most often led to dramatic changes in the new recruits behavior prior to belief changes and the development of commitment..” (3).

Deprogramming emphasized the importance of beliefs in any religious system and the necessity of a balance between beliefs, lifestyle, and ritual. But the significant thing in this emphasis was the highlighting and use by deprogrammers of the former beliefs of those who became involved in the new religious movements. The corrective for what deprogrammers saw as aberrations in the lifestyle and ritual patterns of the new group was in no way constitutive of the beliefs of the new religions. In fact, the opposite was assumed, namely, that the beliefs of the new religions had little or nothing to do with the acceptance of new lifestyles and rituals by devotees of the new groups and that those beliefs could not, therefore, be invoked as corrective influences for lifestyles and rituals. The approach in deprogramming activities has been to discredit the new beliefs and to call new lifestyle and ritual patterns into question by restoring the credibility of former beliefs. The assumption in this approach has been that the beliefs of the new religions, even when taken seriously by group members, could not stand the tests of rational analysis and public understanding.

A Transitional Development:

New Concern for Balance

The public debate in support or denunciation of deprogramming, in addition to focusing upon the legality or illegality of this practice, produced a transitional development in the discussion of the new religious groups that has had an effect on the present-day concern about the ethics of social influence. That development came essentially as a result of the insistence that deprogramming was illegal and that the assumptions of the deprogrammers needed to be modified. That modification produced a different view of the new religious movements.

For some who study the new religious movements today, the belief systems of those groups are important either because they have in fact helped determine and shape the lifestyle and ritual patterns of devotees and, therefore, could function as a corrective influence upon those patterns, or because their truth-claims have religious value in themselves that cannot be dismissed too quickly from the realm of public discussion. The result has been a shift in the perception of and attitudes toward the beliefs of the new religious movements issuing into a concern for finding new ways to generate public interest in these movements and new forms of public discussion about them.

This shift has been accompanied by a growing literature defending the right of the new religious groups to exist and to be represented in the phenomenon of religious pluralism in this country without bias or prejudice, stereotype or reductionism (4). This literature argues for distinctions its authors claim need to be made between the so-called destructive cults that control the total environment of the devotee in the extreme and the other religious groups that respect the free choice and integrity of individuals who join them. Moreover, the debate in the literature surrounding this shift has been concerned with the pressing need to differentiate the continuum on which these groups lie and to seek language and concepts that can adequately describe the complexity of the religious experience itself and the multiplicity of the phenomenon of new religious groups.

This shift in attitude toward the importance of religious belief vis-a-vis the cults, by the pro-cult reaction in our society today, is the first dimension of this transitional development. It affirms the integrity of beliefs and seeks to give them fair exposure in the broad cultural religious conversation. “Mere is, however, a second dimension in the transitional development It is represented by voices calling attention to a new imbalance, one in which there is an over-attention paid to belief to the neglect of lifestyle patterns and ritual, and to the way that imbalance is manifested within religious systems and in the interaction of religious groups.

On the one hand, there is more than abundant evidence in the public press today that when beliefs are given more attention than lifestyle patterns and rituals, distortions and aberrations result internally. Witness, for example, the cases of child abuse in groups whose fundamentalist orientation toward the Bible takes precedence over any religious or humanitarian concerns that place high value on individual human life (5).

On the other hand, there is a growing concern about the effect belief systems have upon ethics in the public arena. In a pluralistic society, religious systems inevitably affect each other, especially if they are involved in some form of public discourse and more especially if they are conversionary in outlook and purpose. In such instances, overattention to beliefs may affect other religious groups adversely. When, for example, convictions about religious particularity or divine election are the primary motivations for conversionary religious groups, there is a high potential for distortion in the lifestyle relationships such groups have with other groups.

There is a clear tendency among conversionary groups to teach their beliefs to other people and thus "win them over." That tendency in itself may represent open discussion in a free society and intend no ill effects or unjust treatment of others. But it may also be the source of interpersonal improbities in which any means used to convert another person are justified by the end, namely “winning others over.” More often than not, such tendencies occur in religious groups whose heightened sense of commitment to beliefs overshadows judgments about lifestyle and ritual, producing perceived distortions within the style of the group itself and eventually an attitude of condescension on the part of such a group toward others. That attitude quickly engenders a “we-they” mentality that can lead to a posture of superiority and its resultant devaluing of the other person’s position and right to that position.

Today we are witnessing new activity among the conversionary or transformational groups represented by some fundamentalist and evangelical organizations to “win others over” with apparent disregard for methods used in the process. The result has been a bungling outreach at best and interpersonal foul play and moral turpitude at worst.

In light of this situation, the needed new balance in the pluralistically religious scene is twofold. it involves not only the former need to balance carefully and intentionally the belief, lifestyle, and ritual within the group’s own experience so that belief will not overshadow lifestyle and ritual or vice versa, but also the contemporary need to seek a carefully and intentionally balanced relationship in the intercourse of a plurality of religious groups. This is essentially a matter of social influence. Religious groups can no longer be satisfied to seek balance internally. They need to seek balance externally by the way they coincide or clash with other groups. This need for new balance, then, emerges as a concern for ethics, the ethics of social influence. The parameters of that concern are the public domain of beliefs in a pluralistic society and the expression of those beliefs in a lifestyle inevitably touching people of different religious commitments.

The Context and Process for a New Balance: A Proposal

The concern for a new balance emerges as an ethical issue in the relationship of religious groups, broadens the context for inquiring about the sanctions for ethics.

Hence, the source of ethical sanctions is not limited to the internal structure of a religious system but is located in the interaction and social influence of one religious group upon another. Broadly speaking, ethical sanctions must come out of the context of human interaction and not out of the internally defined beliefs, lifestyle, and ritual patterns of any one group, if the Holy War mentality is to be avoided and something more than unthinking congeniality between different groups is to be achieved. Moreover, the process for seeking a new balance is defined by the potentialities of that interaction.

One way of getting at this concern for a new balance is through the question: How do lifestyle and ritual inform the public domain of beliefs? This question implies the existence of correctives over beliefs through lifestyle and ritual activities, in the arena of human interaction. The question seeks answers to relational problems among religious groups in the nature of the interaction itself. The interaction reveals the human potential for finding a new balance and defines the process for reaching it.

I would argue that, because the need for a new balance of beliefs, lifestyle, and ritual is both internal and external, the interaction of any given pair of religious groups defames a dialogical process for finding the new balance and a human Potential that is open to mutual understanding and growth developing from the dialogue. The chief aim of " dialogical process is the recovery of conversation over beliefs in such a way that lifestyle patterns can be scrutinized and find further definition and appropriateness through mutual understanding and growth. “This means that social influence in the public arena is always subject to correction for the sake of all parties and groups involved.

The claim that dialogue is the answer to problems in interpersonal relations is easily made. What is not so easy is to understand is what constitutes dialogue and how dialogue functions to ameliorate interpersonal relations. Those who have studied dialogue and the way it functions as constitutive of human community have rightly insisted that dialogue means much more than language. Language is not a neutral or objective ingredient in human experience. It is a symbol system and, therefore, embodies layers of meaning that are not apparent in the words themselves or in the syntax that gives structured meaning to the words. Terminological congruence, for example, may embody wide semantic divergence and vice versa. "“Me language we use tends to build in to our analyses certain theories which become a priori premises” (6).

Moreover, attitudes about the function of dialogue greatly affect the usefulness of dialogue in addressing problems in interpersonal relations. Dialogue is intended to be a creative process in which open discussion is the arena for mutual understanding and growth. And yet the opposite effect often results, and interpersonal problems intensify instead of improve, because of personal attitudes that are contrary to the mutuality of the dialogical process. Henri J. M. Nouwen illustrates the negative effect a discussion or dialogue can have because of the attitudes one has about the process involved.

Quite often the process goes like this: A student enters into the discussion ... As soon as someone states an opinion, the most common reaction is not the internal question: “How can I understand his opinion better?” but "What is my opinion?" So, too, does silence often mean more than an occasion to prepare an answer than to enter the train of thought of the other. And once two, three, or more opinions are stated the primary concern becomes defense of the chosen, even when it is hardly worth defending (7).

A dialogical process that aims at recovering conversations over beliefs in such a way that lifestyle patterns are affected through mutual understanding and growth has several important characteristics. It involves the interaction of personal commitments with an openness on the part of individuals and groups to learn from each other without relinquishing the structures of meaning within their own commitments. This process calls into question any personal commitment that is viewed as either historically absolute or religiously unimportant in the presence of another’s commitment. Furthermore, this process is one that neither drives toward consensus in a pluralistic context nor allows that context to be designated as a multiplicity of religious options.

This dialogical process describes a journey in faith. In that journey growth takes place in the interaction of beliefs, lifestyles, and rituals within religious systems and across religious lines. Those interactions are the context for social influence, but that influence is measurably different from the influence experienced in a setting in which religious absolutes preclude mutual learning and growth and where imbalances and their attendant distortions in one religious system adversely affect other religious systems.

A person’s journey in faith is not so much a continual reaffirmation of commitment as it is a context in which one searches for the meaning of faith. It is an experience in which critical judgments come to bear upon the tradition in which one was nurtured. It is a journey of questioning and growing, of experimentation and risk. Because that is so, the journey is a way of knowing even before it becomes the content of commitment. Faith is a disposition of the heart, the perception by which we experience God. It is an awareness of the grace of God that helps a person see and understand the world in a faithful way (8).

An example of the dialogical process I describe is the interfaith experience of Franz Rosenzweig, a Jew, and Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, a Christian(9). They call dialogue “speech "king,” a process by which truth is revealed through speech that expresses the intercommunication of one mind with another. It is conversation, speech set against speech, that was the method wherein they discovered their respective identities and a common framework. Of the method, Rosenzweig noted: "In the course of dialogue he who happens to be listening also speaks, but he does not speak merely when he is uttering words, nor even mainly when he is uttering words, but just as much when through his eager attention, through the assent or dissent expressed in his glances, he conjures words to his lips and the lips of the current speaker” (IO).

Rosenstock-Huessy's motto was: “I respond although I will be changed." By that he meant that as he spoke and another spoke, in his response he opened himself up to change. This mono captures "the element of risk to each partner that is involved when two people place themselves under the spell of speech that is, when a truly dialogical relationship develops” (I 1).

This kind of dialogue suggests that the important thing is not what is in the individual speakers in the dialogue but what together they find between them. Such dialogue further suggests that individuals do not find self-understanding and self-identity in themselves but in the dialogical process. When people place themselves under the "spell of speech,” they discover who they are. Individuals discover their self-understanding and self-identity in the process of talking about themselves to each other. Meaning emerges through this kind of dialogue, the kind I suggested above that assumes the vitality of religious pluralism as the matrix in which truth is sought, claimed and translated into historically and culturally defined beliefs and patterns of life.

Such dialogue supports Goethe's claim: Zwischen uns sei Wahrheit (between us is truth). “This is not to deny that truth can be spoken about or that the truth-claims of individuals and groups can be documented in writings from which others can learn. But it is to assert that religious truth is not limited to, nor primarily, a body of belief statements or propositions to which individuals and groups give assent. The meaning of religious truth is never exhausted until it comes alive in the faithfulness by which believers seek it in dialogue with each other.

When dialogue is understood this way it is an intentional human activity aiming at the recovery of conversation over beliefs and thereby offering individuals and groups an understanding of religious commitment as affirmation of identity within a multiple faith experience. Furthermore, such affirmation of identity is never just one option among others but one that has attained its value as a faith-claim because of the interaction of different experiences. It is an affirmation coming from the kind of growth that is essentially qualitative and that results in new personal dimensions in the journey in faith.

Bernard Loomer, formerly of the theological faculty at the University of Chicago, says that such growth can best be understood as a category of largeness or size. He explains:

By size I mean the stature of a person’s soul, the range and depth of his love, his capacity for relationships. I mean the volume of life you can take into your being and still maintain your integrity and individuality, the intensity and variety of outlook you can entertain in the unity of your being without feeling defensive or insecure. I mean the strength of your spirit to encourage others to become freer in the development of their diversity and uniqueness. I mean the power to sustain more complex and enriching tensions, I mean the magnanimity of concern to provide conditions that enable others to increase in stature (I 2).

Dialogue as I speak of it here is an experience that can lead one to make a religious claim for absolutes instead of making absolute claims historically and culturally in the improbities of social influence among religious groups. Understood this way, dialogue can lead from a description of the contemporary religious scene to a prescriptive response to that scene by framing the question of the ethics of social influence in the balance of beliefs, lifestyles, and rituals within a religious system and among religious groups. That framing provides for the continuing discussion about contemporary religious groups toward an ever-unfolding definition of their interaction in a religiously pluralistic society.


1. Coward, H.G. “Panikkar's Approach to Interreligious Dialogue," Cross Currents, 29 (Summer 1979): 183-189; Coward, H.G. Pluralism: Challenge to World Religions (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1985); Hick, J. Truth and Dialogue in World Religions: Conflicting Truth-Claims (Philadelphia: Wesminster, 1974); Knitter, P. F. No Other Name?: A Critical Survey of Christian Attitudes Toward the World Religions, American Society of Missionary Series, no. 7 (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1985); Panikkar, R. “Response to Howard Coward,” Cross Currents, 29 (Summer 1979): 190-192; Raschke, C.A. “Religious Pluralism and Truth: From Theology to a Hermeneutical Dialogy,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion , 50 (March 1982): 3548; Smith, W.C. Religious Diversity, ed. Willard G. Ostoby (New York: Crossroad, 1982).

2. Kilbourne, B.K., and Richardson, J.T. “Cult Versus Families: A Case of Misattribution of Cause?" Cults and the Family, Marriage & Family Review, vol. 4, nos. 3/4 (New York: Haworth, 1982), p. 85.

3. Ibid.

4. Bromley, D.G., and Shupe, A.S. Jr., Strange Gods: The Great American Cult Scare (Boston: Beacon, 198 1) and Melton, J.G., and Moom R.L. The Cult Experience: Respondng to the New Religious Pluralism (New York: Pilgrim, 1982).

5. See articles in American Family Foundation: Cultic Studies Newsletter, 2 (March 1983 & December 1983) and articles in Cultic Studies Journal, I (May 1984 & Fall/Winter 1984).

6. Robbins, T. “Cults, Coercion, and Dialogue,” Cultic Studies Newsletter, 2 (March 1983): 3.

7. Creative Minisoy (Garden City: Doubleday, 197 1), p. 7.

8. Kreider, E.G. "A Triangle of Affections: “Me Shaping of Commitment in Contemporary Religious Experience,” WORD & WORLD, 4 (Summer 1984): 297.

9. Rosenstock-Huessy, E., ed. Judaism Despite Christianity: The "Letters on Christianity and Judaism" between Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy and Franz Rosenzweig (University, Ala.: University of Alabama, 1969).

10. Glatzer, N.N. Franz Rosenzweig: His Life and Thought (New York: Shocken, 1953), p. 308.

11. Rosenstock-Huessy, Judaism Despite Christianity pp. 4-5.

12. “S-I-Z-E,” Criterion, 13 (Spring 1974): 6.


Eugene C. Kreider, Ph.D., is Professor of Pastoral Theology and Ministry and Director of Graduate Studies at Lutheran Northwestern Theological Seminary, St. Paul, Minnesota.