Monday, September 22, 2014

The Practice of Pluralism

"Rainbow Colors"
-Dawn at the Desert Retreat House-

Growing up as a boy,  I lived in a "lily-white" neighborhood composed mostly of people who were Roman Catholics. There were a handful of Protestants who lived on my street, but that's about as diverse as it got; and to be honest for much of my adult life that's about as diverse as it ever got. And then we moved to Los Angeles - arguably the most diverse city on the planet.

After we moved to L.A. it took us some time to get used to all the many differences surrounding us,  my wife and I often felt that we were seriously "out of our element." People were dressed in suits as well as hijabs, they wore baseball caps and yarmulkes. Our church was in Koreatown and near us there were Thai Town, Little Ethiopia and Little Guatemala. Many African Americans attended our church as well as immigrants from Africa. I would walk a city street and hear the unfamiliar sounds of so many different languages being spoken at one time- Spanish and Farsi, Greek, Russian, Armenian and Tagalog. Hollywood celebrities lived in Beverly Hills mansions and homeless people slept on sidewalks on a cardboard box. 

When we came to Los Angeles we felt as if we had moved to another planet not another city.

Gradually I came, not only to welcome this vast diversity but to cherish and relish it; however, there was something about all these many differences that always left me feeling somewhat uneasy. While all these beautifully different people lived within the borders of the same city, it was rare that different groups ever really interacted with one another. People confined themselves to their own neighborhoods surrounding themselves with others who looked alike, spoke alike and thought like. In fact some of these neighborhoods were guarded by locked gates and high walls. 

I always thought that driving a car on the many endless highways of Los Angeles was a perfect icon of our common life - safe within the security of our well-protected automobiles, we could look at our fellow motorists and observe all the many different types of people passing by, but we never really got to touch each others' lives, we just sort of drove alongside one another. 

I was thinking about all this yesterday when I came across an article in the New York Times that offered a clear (and very helpful) distinction between "diversity" and "pluralism."

Pluralism is not diversity alone, but the energetic engagement with diversity.  Mere diversity without real encounter will actually lead to increasing the tensions in a society.

Pluralism does not require us to leave our identities and are commitments behind…it means holding our deepest differences, even our religious difference, not in isolation but in relationship to one another.

This made so much sense to me, and in a flash of insight I came to realize why I was always somewhat uneasy about my experiences of all the many differences while living in Los Angeles. They had been experiences of diversity, not pluralism.

I think about the colors of the rainbow, the many differences don't just sit next to one another, tolerating one another's existence. No, they interact with one another,  and in doing so "light"emerges.  Likewise, the "energetic engagement" of hydrogen and oxygen is what makes "water" come into being. 

As I see it, the spiritual journey is a path toward "oneness' - an "enlightened" awareness that everything and everyone all belong to one another in a complex web of dynamic "inter being." On the spiritual journey I must begin with recognizing, welcoming and even relishing diversity, but it can't stop there.  The next step is the "practice of pluralism," - doing my best each day to "energetically engage" those who are different so that my life touches their lives and their lives touch mine. 

That's when something new emerges from it all.

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