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Pluralism: Religion in a World of Options

To adherents of sociology of religion's old paradigm, pluralization of religion and culture was expected to contribute to the secularization of religion because it would erode the plausibility of religious belief (Berger, 1967). In other words, the more often people hear ideas which contradict their world-view, the less plausible their own world-view becomes. Although this is one possible effect of pluralization, the mystical world-view explained in the previous section incorporates an explanation for pluralism as well as an argument for its necessity. From the mystical standpoint, different religions are simply human attempts to explain the same God, which appears differently to people depending on their culture and spiritual needs. As Unity teaches, "There is only one presence and one power in the universe and in my life: God, the good, omnipotent" (Christ Unity Church, May 1995). In a sermon, Barrette explained that God's communication must be filtered through subconscious beliefs of both the individual and the larger societal group of which the individual is a part. It is the subconscious mind, therefore, which makes God appear differently to different people.

This understanding of the subconscious, both collective and individual, also explains to us the diversity in the world of ways of looking at God, and also the ways that people are accessing God in today's society. . . .
When you recognize this you find yourself respecting the teachings of all world religions more and more, and freeing yourself to see that which resonates to your heart and choosing to act from and learn from those things, rather than dividing yourself from other people because of their belief systems and casting them out of your heart because they don't follow your theological guidance. (Oct. 27, 1996)

Barrette's explanation fits well into the new sociological paradigm which asserts that pluralism of religion arose to meet the religious needs of different subcultures as America increasingly diversified. Warner (1993) explains that religion became a method of societal differentiation in the cultural melting pot of the United States. "Religion itself is recognized in American society, if not always by social scientists, as a fundamental category of identity and association, and is thereby capable of grounding both solidarities and identities" (p. 1059). Not only did religion actually create some subcultures, like Mormonism, but it also created and sustained important societal associations among people as they moved along the frontier.

The effect of pluralism on religious attitudes and practices has been included in many studies, including Hoge et al.'s (1994) study of Presbyterian baby boomers. They interviewed boomers who had been confirmed in the Presbyterian Church to find out about their practices and beliefs at the time of the study. Hoge et al. break up their respondents into eight categories, within two groups. The "Churched" group consists of those who are both members and attend regularly, and are divided into the following four categories: Fundamentalists, Presbyterians, other Mainline Churched and Other Churched. All other respondents are considered "Unchurched" and are categorized as Attenders, Members, Uninvolved but Religious or Nonreligious.

Hoge et al.'s study concentrates heavily on what the authors describe as "lay liberals," who do not see Christianity as the only true religion and respect the right of religious choice. They want religious education for their children, but they are reluctant to impose values on anyone. "This position combines an acknowledgment that no religion has a monopoly on the truth with the assumption that religious truth does exist and that all religions teach it in some way" (pp. 114-115). The adjective "lay" is used because these liberals were not well-versed in liberal theological doctrines such as liberation theology or feminist theology (p. 113).

Hoge et al. measured lay liberalism, in part, with two indexes. The Christ Only Index consisted of two statements: "The only absolute Truth for humankind is in Jesus Christ" and "Only followers of Jesus Christ and members of His church can be saved." The percentage of Unity respondents agreeing to both statements is presented in Figure 8 and compared to Hoge et al.'s results.

Figure 8 - Christ Only Index
The Christ Only Index measures agreement to the statements: "The only absolute truth for humankind is in Jesus Christ," and "Only followers of Jesus Christ and members of His church can be saved." Note: All data except Unity from Vanishing Boundaries: The Religion of Mainline Protestant Baby Boomers by Hoge et al., 1994, Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, p. 83.

The Universalism Index measures affirmative responses to the following two statements: "All the great religions of the world are equally good and true" and "All the different religions are equally good ways of helping a person find ultimate truth." The results are charted in Figure 9.

Figure 9 - Universalism index
The Universalism Index measures agreement to the statements: "All the great religions of the world are equally good and true," and "All the different religions are equally good ways of helping a person find ultimate truth." Note: All data except Unity from Vanishing Boundaries- The Religion of Mainline Protestant Baby Boomers by Hoge et al., 1994, Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, p. 83.

Hoge et al. concluded that scores on the Christ Only Index were more relevant than the Universalism Index because many of their respondents said that although they did not think Christianity was the only true religion, they did not believe all religions were equally valid. While Unity respondents were more universalistic than any group in the Vanishing Boundaries study, it is likely that the distinction among different religions was made by many Unity respondents as well. In addition, there was a significant difference between the two Unity groups, with 34 percent of retreat respondents and 67 percent of Albuquerque respondents agreeing that "All the different religions are equally good ways of helping a person find ultimate truth." This places retreat respondents more in line with the responses found by Hoge et al., whereas Albuquerque respondents were more universalistic on that question. The Christ Only Index suggests that the reluctance among lay liberals to label Christianity as the only true religion is quite widespread among many groups, except fundamentalist. Although it is only one aspect of the philosophy, Unity's message of respect for other religions may be attractive to the large number of lay liberals found in Hoge et al.'s study.

Historically, Unity was meant to be a resource for people of all religions. Silent Unity maintains that vision and still attracts a surprisingly large following of people who are not affiliated with Unity. According to Jafolla, the largest block of callers to Silent Unity is Catholic, followed by Methodist and other Christian denominations. She said a significant portion of the callers are Buddhists, Jews, Baha'is, Muslims and members of other faiths. Unity churches also work to maintain an ecumenical spirit while presenting its own philosophy. This can be accomplished by concentrating on the similarities between religions rather than the differences. Albuquerque's Barrette, for example, frequendy illustrates his lessons with quotes from the Tao Te Ching and the Sufi mystic Rumi, as well as from theologians and philosophers from other Chrisdan traditions. Barrette has produced an audio tape which explains the similarides between Taoism and Unity. The tape cover explains: "Jesus did not teach us to live from one set of rules. He tried to reduce everything down to one rule, which was love. . . . It is the consciousness of eternity itself, what we call the 'Christ in you,' which is your consciousness of the Tao" (Barrette, 1997). In this way, the "truths" of other religions become illustrations for Unity concepts.

This ecumenical spirit translates into an openness in many congregations that research participants commended. Barbara said,

I like the openness and the fact that any group in the community can hold meetings there. . . . It's very open to anything or anybody, and I've never seen that in any other church I've ever been to, even to visit. We have all kinds of people who come there from all different denominations. We have lots of gay people, we have people with AIDS, you know, Spanish people, Indian people, and everybody's welcome.

One of the reasons Unity may be able to maintain an openness and pluralistic outlook is because it espouses a philosophy which is questioned and misunderstood by many outside the religion. The misunderstandings others have of their beliefs may cause some in Unity to question whether or not they know enough about another philosophy to make a judgment. In other words, since they don't want people to jump to conclusions about Unity, they try not to make judgments about other religions as well. Annemarie, for example, said she gets discouraged by what she sees as her daughter's misunderstanding of Unity philosophy.

Like I said, I try not to look down on any of those religions, because if that helps them get through life, that is great. Her husband is Presbyterian minister. So we exchange ideas a lot now, and of course, I try to give them books that don't say Unity because they try to judge it by the outer label. They are just already ahead of time prejudging against it. . . . There are so many things where Unity can be misunderstood. For instance when we're talking about the Twelve Powers, one of Fillmore's books, and the picture in there is of a human being. It says "I am the Christ." People who don't understand Unity think we're saying I am the whole Christ, not realizing we're talking about that Christ consciousness that unfolds as we work on it.

Although most people in Unity make efforts to respect other religions, not all expect to be able to use all the philosophies themselves. While 61 percent of respondents said they preferred to explore different religious teachings, 34 percent said they would rather stick to a faith. Maria explained this divergence by noting that even though you can see the validity of other ways of thinking, that doesn't mean that you can use them all. Instead, you use the one that is best for you because of your culture and your individual needs.

"You can look at it culturally. Stories that people tell themselves make up culture. Then the culture makes up the religion. . . . Jesus is the answer for Christians because they sent their prayers up to the divine and that was the answer they got. Other cultures get different answers. I don't think the divine really cares. It's probably best the way that Unity thinks of it: that there's only one presence in the universe. But you have a choice. . . . I don't think there's a right way. But there are some ways that are probably more effective."

Unity presents people with choices and, in theory, does not pass judgment on people who do not agree. The ability of a church to carry out this non- judgmental aspect rests primarily on the minister, and secondarily on the congregation. I have attended Unity services, for example, where the minister spoke in his sermon about Unity members being "recovering Catholics" or "recovering Presbyterians." Although it may have been funny to some, my husband and I were offended because the wording implied that any belief other than Unity is a disease which must be overcome. Annemarie also encountered this problem, which she explained when she described her ideal church as a place where people can worship something greater than themselves.

Interviewer: You said that it would be a place that would honor and respect all people?
Annemarie: Yes. No matter what religious background they come from. I have heard some church services, and it was at some of the Unity services, where they really talk against the Catholic church. And I realize what they mean. Many people have gone through painful experiences because of the Catholic church. But I believe there are also a lot of important things in the Catholic church. So I kind of feel like a minister shouldn't really make fun of another church.

An important distinction regarding the accepting nature of Unity was made by Barrette (February 16, 1997) when he distinguished between accepting people and accepting their behavior. He gave an example of a man who harassed women during church services. Although some people said the church must accept the man, Barrette argued that while he could accept the man, his behavior was unacceptable. The church accepts that everyone has Christ within them, and attempts to treat them with this divine nature in mind. This does not mean, however, that the church or individuals must accept the behavior of everyone.

© 1997, Rebecca Gittrich Whitecotton
All rights reserved by the author.
Reprinted with permission.