Piecemeal Pragmatic Pluralism

Today’s guest blogger is Timothy P. Manatt. Timothy is a recent graduate of Harvard Divinity School, where he studied comparative … Continued

Today’s guest blogger is Timothy P. Manatt. Timothy is a recent graduate of Harvard Divinity School, where he studied comparative philosophy of religion. He currently lives in Chicago with his better half and is working on numerous writing projects.

Two years ago Senator Barack Obama gave a speech on faith and politics in which he stressed the reality and importance of religious pluralism in a democracy and argued that “religiously motivated” citizens must “translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values.” Religious people, Obama claimed, cannot merely point to church teachings or evoke God’s will when proposing legislation on contentious issues such as abortion. Instead, they need to appeal to principles that are “accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.”

Recently, however, the founder of Focus on the Family, James Dobson, railed against the senator’s speech, accusing him of saying that “it is anti-democratic to believe or fight for moral principles in the Bible that are not supported by people of all faiths or presumably by people of no faith.” Dobson was quick to contrast this claim with the Constitution, which purports to value the freedom of religious expression.

As one who was intimately engaged in addressing the many xenophobic responses following 9/11 and who is now involved in an inter-religious marriage, I remember being delighted when I first heard Obama talk about pluralism in America. “It’s about time a political candidate spoke like this about religion,” I thought.

But I must admit that Dobson, though he represents a religious ideology very different from my own, has managed to highlight a very important critique of Obama’s argument. The demand for religious people to limit their public discourse to purely secular, universal principles not only seems based on an unfair assumption that religious reasons and premises are to be considered immediately illegitimate but is also unrealistic in a country as truly diverse as ours.

Religious or not, our arguments for policies are always dependent upon vocabulary, logic, and axioms unique to our particular historical-cultural contexts. So for contentious issues like abortion, it is unrealistic to assume that any universal premises for adjudication exist, and thus, it seems hypocritical to exclude idiosyncratic religious premises in favor of idiosyncratic non-religious premises as if they were universal.

So what’s the solution? How can we encourage interfaith dialogue on public policy issues without predetermined universal principles of adjudication? One possibility is to follow the “piecemeal, pragmatic approach” of American philosopher, Jeffrey Stout. Debates will be more fruitful, he claims, if we begin by keeping the scope narrow and searching for “local similarities” between particular moral traditions, rather than “global uniformities” among them all. Whenever such similarities cannot be found, however, we must proceed by offering careful and respectful “immanent criticism,” arguing not from some universal perspective but from the distinctive context of our interlocutor and showing them how their own premises should lead them to the same conclusions as ours.

By engaging in Stout’s piecemeal pragmatism, we may be able to capture the true spirit of pluralism that Obama intended by acknowledging and respecting our differences, thus making us more likely to utilize our similarities for the common good. Perhaps even Dobson himself could eventually embrace this method for addressing pluralism in America.

The content of this blog reflects the views of its author and does not necessarily reflect the views of either Eboo Patel or the Interfaith Youth Core.

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  • Vinee Patel

    WOW! That is a really good insight. Me being spiritual in belief even though born as a Hindu, I really you addressing the pluralism of religion. I guess that will solve a lots of problems in our country!


    Religion performs important social and psychological functions in human societies. It also performs many economic functions.In Tibet, 25% of all males are recruited to become monks. The need for employment is, therefore, reduced proportionately. Good or bad? Depends on your viewpoint.When people suffer catastrophes, religion provides them comfort and psychological support.Religion should transform our character by suppressing the evil and promoting the good.No doubt, when we go into the details of what belief systems of different faiths are and we start evaluating them with our own ethnocentric views then conflicts arise.Religion belongs to the realm of the supernatural. There are two common elements in religion: (1) the presence of the sacred, and (2) rituals.Sacred is something which exists in the minds of the believer. A symbol is something which stands for something else. Hence, to a Catholic the holy cross made of a piece of silver is ‘holy’. To someone who is not Christian, it is only a piece of silver.A ritual is the prescribed way of performing a religious act. Rituals are repetitive in nature and create a sense of discipline among the believers and educate the younger generations of the belief system.Religions operate on the principle of reward and punishment. If one follows the tenets of the faith, one will be rewarded. If one does not follow the tenets of the faith one will be punished.Monotheistic religions use ‘heaven’ and ‘hell’ as their ways of rewarding and punishing.In Buddhism, it is one’s ‘karma’ (deeds) that is used to entice followers to conform to the standards set by the society. It is the endless cycle of birth,death, and rebirth that can finally lead to ‘nirvana’.All religions demand conformity to the social standards and create the “we” feeling. Those who do not conform are ‘they’. The struggle is always “us” vs. “them”.As a Muslim, I feel I must have faith in the 5 pillars of Islam. But I have no right to evaluate or judge people of other faiths. That judgment only belongs to Allah, God, Yahweh, Ishwar etc. I must develop respect other people’s beliefs and must leave them alone so that they can practice their faith.We must be all inclusive in reaching out to people of all faiths–Hindus, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists etc.This is the minimum condition for ‘tolerance’.

  • Trevor M. Bibler

    I appreciate this interesting post, but I have to disagree with a few of Mr. Manatt’s points. I think my disagreements stem from the Mr. Manatt’s appropriation of Dobson’s misinterpretation of Obama’s speech. Dobson claims that Obama refuses to allow any Christian moral motivations in public discourse, or, as Mr. Manatt quotes, “it is anti-democratic to believe or fight for moral principles in the Bible that are not supported by people of all faiths or presumably by people of no faith.” But is this Obama’s point in his speech? Obama’s point, if I understand his speech correctly, is that public debate and public policies should not be based MERELY on a specific religious tradition, e.g., Church tradition, the TaNaKa, the Quran or any other text that contains moral claims. Instead public policies ought to appeal to “principle[s] that [are] accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.” In other words, to take Mr. Manatt’s abortion example, Obama would say that it is NOT ENOUGH to simply quote Leviticus or Paul or Muhammad or Nagarjuna and expect anti-choice legislation to be issued forth from one’s statehouse or the US congress. Obama says that the “religiously motivated” must be able to “translate” their concerns into “universal” value. In other words, “religious motivation” is a fine starting point, but it is not adequate when it comes to JUSTIFYING public policy. Perhaps we also need to be more careful with the notion of “universal principle.” By invoking the notion of “universality,” Obama need not be demanding that one argues from a universal perspective. Rather, he demands that one speak in a language that appeals not only to those within one’s religious tradition, but also outside one’s tradition. After all, in order for a perspective to become law, it must be subjected to the scrutiny of public debate, and in order to engage in public debate, one must adopt a language common to people of differing faiths. In the end, I think that both Stout and Manatt put forth a good model for public dialogue. But I also think that Obama’s speech in no way conflicts with such a model! Very interesting and timely article. I hope Manatt posts again.

  • Surg

    This is a very interesting article, but I disagree with the writer’s interpretation of Obama’s speech. Obama claimed that “religious motivated” people cannot “merely” point to church’s teaching or evoke God’s will, but he did not ask people to completely disregard their religious views when proposing legislation on contentious issues. His suggestion to appeal to principles that are “accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all” can also be interpreted as a step toward piecemeal pragmatism rather than assuming that Obama demands for religious people to limit their public discourse to purely secular and universal principles.The idea of finding “local similarities” between particular moral traditions rather than “global uniformities” absolutely startled me. What a wonderful insight! Very persuasive! I wish more people will embrace this idea so that we can acquire true religious pluralism.On the other hand, I am very keen and interested to learn about the idea of “”immanent criticism” that sounds complicated to attain. I would love to read Mr. Manatt’s article about how an individual should proceed toward “”immanent criticism” without offending people from different religious backgrounds.

  • Anonymous

    An interesting blog. I feel that the issue you addressed is not one about which I would be able to speak on at an informed level. Quality writing though. Heartfelt and interesting, and, to myself at least, persuasive.

  • Dustin

    Very nice article, read it all the way through without dozing off once. I even agreed with most of it!

  • Ajit

    The Sufi movement of Islam produced a number of Sufis or dervishes in the medieval time. One famous sfi of the 12th century A.D., was Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti who settled at Ajmer, India. The teachings of the Sufis attracted millions of people around the globe. Here are some of the teachings of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti: Here are some of the sacred sayings of Hazrat Khawaja Moinuddin. The intervening period of seven long centuries has not, in any way, affected their ever-lasting efficacy and value.Essence of Sufism * The heart of a lover (the true devote of God) constantly burns with the fire of Love so much so that whatever passion intrudes upon its sanctity is burnt to ashes. * He indeed is a true devotee blessed with the love of God, who is gifted with the following three attributes: river-like charity, i.e his sense of charity has no limits and is equally beneficial to all the creatures of God who approach him, Sun-like affection, i.e. his affection may be extended indiscriminately to all like sunlight and Earth-like hospitality, i.e. His loving embrace may be open to all like that of the earth.

  • Ajit

    Sufism, Sufis, and Sufi Orders: Sufism’s Many PathsWhen he was asked about Sufism, Junayd said, “Sufism is that you should be with God–without any attachment.”With regard to Sufism, Ruwaym ibn Ahmad said, “Sufism consists of abandoning oneself to God in accordance with what God wills.”On one occasion when he was asked about Sufism, Samnun said, “Sufism is that you should not possess anything nor should anything possess you.”Concerning Sufism, Abu Muhammad al-Jariri said, “Sufism consists of entering every exalted quality (khulq) and leaving behind every despicable quality.”When he was asked about Sufism, ‘Amr ibn ‘Uthman al-Makki said, “Sufism is that at each moment the servant should be in accord with what is most appropriate (awla) at that moment.”Regarding Sufism, ‘Ali ibn ‘Abd al-Rahim al-Qannad said, “Sufism consists of extending a ‘spiritual station’ (nashr maqam) and being in constant union (ittisal bi-dawam).”All of these definitions of Sufism given by Sufis who lived in the 9th and 10th centuries (CE) are provided by al-Sarraj (d. 378 AH/ 988 CE) in the earliest comprehensive book on Sufism, the Kitab al-Luma’ (The Book of Flashes) (ed. by R. Nicholson, pp. 34-35). These definitions of Sufism, however, are mere signposts pointing one

  • Stella on Common Values versus Secular/Religious Values

    Thanks for this post. I would like to point out that it is not necessary to jump directly from non-“religious-specific values” to “purely secular, universal principles,” as the writer does in this post. Perhaps what Senator Obama meant by finding universal values is that certain principles are valued in different religious communities, as well as in non-religious communities. In the context of abortion, perhaps participants in the debate might share a principle of valuing women’s health and a concern for the often unfortunate situation of underpriveleged women. In such a case, these concerns can become a basis for moving forward. The fact that some participants may take a “religious” perspective on said principles, while others may take a “secular” pespective, is not always relevant or productive when a common value is shared. In other words, labeling a particular value as either “religious” or “secular” is unnecessary and often obscures the many commonalities that diverse communities share.

  • Ajit

    Can we bind people together through the development of character?An atheist is a non-believer in spirituality. In this century, the majority of time in a 24-hr day most of us spend 95+ % of our time in secular activities,i.e., eating, going to work, interacting with people, coming back home, watching TV and then going to sleep.A person who is spiritually inclined sees spiritual value even in these seemingly secular activities.When you go to work and make an honest living so that you can provide food and shelter to your family, there is both an emotional and spiritual reward in it. It is a form of worship.When you interact with people and try to be fair in your dealings, there is also an spiritual reward in it–another form of worship.When you come across a thirsty animal and provide water or shelter to that animal, there is a spiritual reward in it. Be kind to animals as well as human beings. Another act of worship.When someone insults you and you simply walk away, you are not a coward but a spiritual person.When you offer food to to your hungry neighbor or help your neighbor in some other way, you are engaging in a form of worship.I learned all this and a lot more about tolerance from reading Rumi, the Muslim philosopher, poet, and sufi who lived 7-8 centuries ago. His work is immensely popular in Europe and was on NY Times BESTSELLER list a few years ago.Whether you proclaim to be a Muslim or not, by acting in the above-mentioned ways you are a Muslim.Unfortunately, most of us are engaged in wars of identity–very superficial ways to identify ourselves as Christians, Jews, Muslims, or Hindus.

  • Ajit

    Teachings of RumiThe general theme of his thoughts, like that of the other mystic and Sufi poets of the Persian literature, is essentially about the concept of Tawhīd (unity) and union with his beloved (the primal root) from which/whom he has been cut and fallen aloof, and his longing and desire for reunity.The “Masnavi” weaves fables, scenes from everyday life, Qur’anic revelations and exegesis, and metaphysics, into a vast and intricate tapestry. Rumi is considered an example of “insan-e kamil” — the perfected or completed human being. In the East, it is said of him, that he was, “not a prophet — but surely, he has brought a scripture”. Rumi believed passionately in the use of music, poetry and dancing as a path for reaching God. For Rumi, music helped devotees to focus their whole being on the divine, and to do this so intensely that the soul was both destroyed and resurrected. It was from these ideas that the practice of Whirling Dervishes developed into a ritual form. He founded the order of the Mevlevi, the “whirling” dervishes, and created the “Sema”, their “turning”, sacred dance. In the Mevlevi tradition, Sema represents a mystical journey of spiritual ascent through mind and love to “Perfect.” In this journey the seeker symbolically turns towards the truth, grows through love, abandons the ego, finds the truth, and arrives at the “Perfect”. The seeker then returns from this spiritual journey with greater maturity, so as to love and to be of service to the whole of creation without discrimination against beliefs, races, classes and nations.According to Shahram Shiva, one reason for Rumi’s popularity is that “Rumi is able to verbalize the highly personal and often confusing world of personal/spiritual growth and mysticism in a very forward and direct fashion. He does not offend anyone, and he includes everyone. The world of Rumi is neither exclusively the world of a Sufi, nor the world of a Hindu, nor a Jew, nor a Christian; it is the highest state of a human being — a fully evolved human. A complete human is not bound by cultural limitations; he touches every one of us. Today Rumi’s poems can be heard in churches, synagogues, Zen monasteries, as well as in the downtown New York art/performance/music scene.” According to Professor Majid M. Naini [2], Rumi’s life and transformation provide true testimony and proof that people of all religions and backgrounds can live together in peace and harmony. Rumi’s visions, words, and life teach us how to reach inner peace and happiness so we can finally stop the continual stream of hostility and hatred and achieve true global peace and harmony.In other verses in Masnavi, Rumi describes in detail the universal message of love: Love’s nationality is separate from all other religions, The lover’s cause is separate from all other causes[edit] Major works Main articles: Diwan-e Shams-e Tabrizi and MasnaviRumi’s poetry is often divided into various categories: the quatrains (rubayāt) and odes (ğazal) of the Divan, the six books of the Masnavi, the discourses, the letters, and the almost unknown Six Sermons.[edit] Poetic Works * Rumi’s major work is Maṭnawīye Ma’nawī (“Spiritual Couplets”; Persian: مثنوی معنوی – Maṣnawīye Ma’nawī), a six-volume poem regarded by some Sufis[24] as the Persian Language Qur’an. It is considered by many to be one of the greatest works of mystical poetry. * Rumi’s other major work is the Dīwān-e Kabīr (“Great Work”) or Dīwān-e Šams-e Tabrīzī (“The Works of Shams of Tabriz”; Persian: دیوان شمس تبریزی – named in honor of Rumi’s great friend and inspiration, the dervish Shams), comprising some 40,000 verses. Several reasons have been offered for Rumi’s decision to name his masterpiece after Shams. Some argue that since Rumi would not have been a poet without Shams, it is apt that the collection be named after him.[edit] Prose Works * Fihi Ma Fihi (“In It What’s in It”) provides a record of seventy-one talks and lectures given by Rumi on various occasions to his disciple. It was compiled from the notes of his various disciples, so Rumi did not author the work directly.[25] The English translation from Persian was first provided by A.J. Arberry as Discourses of Rumi(New York: Samuel Weiser, 1972) and the second book by Wheeler Thackston, Sign of the Unseen(Putney, VT: Threshold Books, 1994). * Majālese Sab’a (“Seven Sessions”) contains seven Persian sermons (as the name implies) or lectures given in seven different assemblies. The sermons themselves gives a commentary on the deeper meaning of Quran and Hadeeth. The sermons include also quotations from poems of Sana’i, Attar and other poets, including Rumi himself. As Aflakī relates, after Šams-e Tabrīzī, Rumi gave sermons at the request of notables, especially Salāh al-Dīn Zarqūbī.[26] * Maktubāt (“The Letters”) is the book containing Rumi’s letter in Persian Language to his disciples, family members and the men of state and influence. The letters testify that Rumi kept very busy helping family members and administering a community of disciples that had gown up around them.[edit] Philosophical outlookRumi was an evolutionary thinker in the sense that he believed that the spirit after devolution from the divine Ego undergoes an evolutionary process by which it comes nearer and nearer to the same divine Ego.[27] All matter in the universe obeys this law and this is due to an inbuilt urge (which Rumi calls love) to evolve and seek enjoinment with the divinity from which it has emerged. Evolution into a human being from an animal is only a stage in this process. The doctrine of the Fall of Adam is reinterpreted as the devolution of the ego from the universal ground of divinity and is a universal cosmic phenomena.[28] This synthesis of evolution and creationism combined was a culmination of the ideas of Plotinus and of previous Muslim philosophers like Al Farabi. The French philosopher Henri Bergson’s idea of life being creative and evolutionary is also a little similar. Unlike Bergson, Rumi believes that there is a specific goal to this whole process which is the attainment of God. God is the ground as well as goal of all existence.I died as a mineral and became a plant,Original Persian:از جمادی مُردم و نامی شدم — وز نما مُردم بحیوان سرزدممُردم از حیوانی و آدم شدم — پس چه ترسم کی ز مردم کم شدمحملهء دیگر بمیرم از بشر — تا برآرم از ملایک بال و پروز ملک هم بایدم جستن ز جو — کل شییء هالک الاوجههبار دیگر از ملک پران شوم — آنچه اندر وهم ناید آن شومپس عدم گردم عدم چو ارغنون — گویدم کانا الیه راجعون[edit] Rumi’s “universality”It is often said[29] that the teachings of Rumi are universal in nature. For him religion was mostly a personal experience and not confined to logical arguments and sense perceptions.[30] Creative love, or the urge to rejoin the spirit to divinity, was the goal towards which every thing moves.[30] The dignity of life, in particular human life (which is conscious of its divine origin and goal) was important.[30] I searched for God among the Christians and on the Cross and therein I found Him not.

  • Ajit

    RumiMawlānā Jalāl-ad-Dīn Muhammad Balkhī (Persian: مولانا جلال الدین محمد بلخى), also known as Mawlānā Jalāl-ad-Dīn Muhammad balkhi[1] (Persian: مولانا جلال الدین محمد بلخى) and Turkish: Mevlâna Celâleddin i Rûmî), but known to the English-speaking world simply as Rumi, (30 September 1207–17 December 1273), was a 13th century Turkish(some scientist think Persian)[2][3] poet, Islamic jurist, and theologian.[4] Rumi is a descriptive name meaning “the Roman” since he lived most parts of his life in Anatolia or ‘Rum’, now located in Turkey.[5]He was born in Balkh, (in modern Afghanistan, then part of Persia), the hometown of his father’s family, although important Rumi scholars believe that Rumi was born in 1207 CE in Wakhsh (Waḫš),[6] a small town located at the river Wakhsh in what is now Tajikistan. Wakhsh belonged to the larger province of Balkh, and in the year Rumi was born, his father was an appointed scholar there.[6] Both these cities were at the time included in the Greater Persian cultural sphere of Khorāṣān, the easternmost province of historical Persia,[7] and were part of the Khwarezmian Empire.His birthplace[8] and native language[9] both indicate a Persian heritage. Due to quarrels between different dynasties in Khorāṣān, opposition to the Khwarizmid Shahs who were considered devious by Bahā ud-Dīn Wālad (Rumi’s father)[10] or fear of the impending Mongol cataclysm,[11] his father decided to migrate westwards. Rumi’s family traveled west, first performing the Hajj and eventually settling in the Anatolian city Konya (capital of the Seljuk Sultanate of Rum, now located in Turkey), where he lived most of his life, composed one of the crowning glories of Persian literature and profoundly affected the culture of the area.[12]He lived most of his life under the Sultanate of Rum, where he produced his works[13] and died in 1273 CE. He was buried in Konya and his shrine became a place of pilgrimage.[14] Following his death, his followers and his son Sultan Walad founded the Mawlawīyah Sufi Order, also known as the order of the Whirling Dervishes, famous for its Sufi dance known as the samāʿ ceremony.Rumi’s works are written in the New Persian language. New Persian (also called Dari-Persian or Dari), a widely understood vernacular of Middle Persian, has its linguistic origin in the Fars Province of modern Iran.[15] A Dari-Persian literary renaissance (In the 8th/9th century) started in regions of Sistan, Khorasan and Transoxiana[16]and by the 10th/11th century, it overtook Arabic as the literary and cultural language in the Persian Islamic world. Although Rumi’s works were written in Persian, Rumi’s importance is considered to transcend national and ethnic borders. His original works are widely read in the original language across the Persian-speaking world. Translations of his works are very popular in South Asian, Turkic, Arab and Western countries. His poetry has influenced Persian literature as well as Urdu, Bengali and Turkish literatures. His poems have been widely translated into many of the world’s languages in various formats, and BBC News has described him as the “most popular poet in America”.[17]

  • GT

    I’m not sure that Barack Obama knows what his faith is, nor his politics so he probably shouldn’t be speaking about either until he knows where his core lies. He doesn’t understand that country comes somewhere below God on the pyramid of importance. No matter what your religion, your beliefs are going to lead your politics. That should be where your core is. And you must have a core or you will wander aimlessly just like Senator Obama does.

  • Arefi

    Arif: Someone correctly suggested that you have a sick mind. You should seek help.Any one who thinks that he is the only one all-knowing, all encompassing with knowledge is indeed a sick person. Do seek help before it is too late.

  • Arif

    “Arif: Someone correctly suggested that you have a sick mind. You should seek help.”Ah, yes I believe it was Anonymous, with a name like that it says it all. He/she made a ridiculous unfounded claim that I posted a nude picture of some girl on these blogs. Islamic logic at work, can’t refute, then kill; can’t kill then make unfounded allegations. Wonder whose mind suffers more, the one who willfully believes in a sick prophet and his absurd cult, or the one who correctly calls it.For those who believe in hell and judgment day there is a special place in hell for willfully believing in the absurd. Those who refuse to apply their own reason and common sense to know right from wrong there is no hope. The allegations I make about the founder of Islam and Islam are not new, they can be read from any source, the best still being Islam’s very own the hadith, Tafsir and the koran.”Any one who thinks that he is the only one all-knowing, all encompassing with knowledge is indeed a sick person.”From what I write how did you ever come to this conclusion?Arif

  • Kailash Talreja

    The approach to “local similarities” rather than “global uniformities” is the key thing that makes this article more interesting. It gives a different dimension to perceive and understand such sensitive topics and perhaps the right way to put things.I would encourage more details on the piecemeal, pragmatic approach from the author in his next article and hope to read the views of other global leaders too.