“New Neighbors, New Pluralism?” By Jenny Replogle

Posted on December 19th, 2010 | Filed under Faith and Politics, InterViews, On Campus

This article was originally published on State of Formation.

During hevruta with a fellow seminarian, I encountered the depths of my own Christian faith in a new way.  This was my first experience of hevruta, the study of the Torah with a partner, but it was familiar for my partner, Gideon, a rabbinical student.  He had never read the text we studied, Luke 10:25-37, but I knew it as both a foundational story of my religion and a favorite Christian justification of interfaith relations.  After reading the text aloud, Gideon asked me what I thought it meant.  Reeling through years of Sunday school explanations to seminary theology, I offered the common explanation for the parable: the Samaritan demonstrates the command to love one’s neighbor in a way which we are to emulate.  Gideon responded, “But that’s not what it says.” I do not remember the conclusion to our discussion that day, but I realized that Gideon might be right.  Surely Jesus calls us to love everyone and to care for the needs of all as the Samaritan did, but my familiarity with the text blinded me from seeing other meaning.

The common explanation that confused Gideon is not necessarily incorrect because Jesus concludes by saying, “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37 NRSV).  However, the question which provoked the parable, “Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29), was asked to identify who the second greatest Christian commandment calls us to love, and the answer is the Samaritan.  He certainly demonstrates an admirable way to behave, but the story is told from the perspective of the man in the ditch. This man is not in a position to discriminate based on the labels of class and religion given to the hearers.[1] Perhaps the point of thisparticular parable is not to render assistance to all others, but a call to take a perspective in which we recognize each person who walks by as a possible neighbor, one I must love as myself.

This reversal of perspective illuminates the centrality of the religious other for my own faith and belief as a Christian. The original question of this discourse is “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 10:25).  If part of the answer is to this question is to love your neighbor as self, and the helping Samaritan is my neighbor, then could this parable suggest that my eternal life depends on seeing myself in need of the other to the point that each who I encounter is my neighbor?  We prefer to read this story in a way that the other’s life is in my hands, but actually my life is at stake in my ability or refusal to recognize my neighbor.

Prior to my conversation with Gideon, I assumed that this pericope meant that I should recognize people all over the world who were different from me as my neighbor, but the command to love the Samaritan was not surprising because Samaritans were different religiously and ethnically, but because they were living in the same land.  Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out “the Hebrew Bible in one verse commands, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’, but in no fewer than 36 places commands us to ‘love the stranger.’”[2] This was surely known by the expert in the law questioning Jesus.  Were the Samaritans too strange to be a neighbor, and too near to be a stranger?

The ambiguous nature of the Samaritan is particularly significant to us today. In her description of A New Religious America, Diana Eck explains, “Adherents of other faiths are no longer distant metaphorical neighbors in some other part of the world but next-door neighbors.”[3] The religious other is now one among us, like the Samaritan, and our very lives and faith depend on our ability to recognize them as our neighbor.

This phenomenon is relatively new for Christians in the West, many of whom experienced their entire lives in predominantly homogenous religious cultures.  This provided the context for much Christian theology and practice in Europe and America over many centuries.  Since religious others were ‘metaphysical neighbors,’ or strangers depending on perspective, they could be treated conceptually along with their religion, and perhaps this accounts for the prevailing understanding of pluralism.  In Christian theology, pluralism has usually meant the claim that all religions and religious truths are valid, taking part in a conversation which explores the relationship between the Christian religion and sweeping treatments of other religions, i.e. Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim.  Our daily realities, however, consist of specific persons whose religion might be different from ours yet is also distinct within their own tradition.  A theology that is not divorced from living its reality daily now calls for a revitalized understanding of pluralism.

The need to re-examine what my faith says about my new neighbors can lead to clarifying who is in and out of the bounds of a religion, or it can be done by drawing on the sources of a tradition to more fully live out one’s faith.  Sacks contends that the imperative for religious people is “to search – each faith in its own way – for a way of living with, and acknowledging the integrity of those who are not of our faith.  Can we make space of difference?... Can we see the presence of God in a stranger?”[4] The embrace of the religious other is not acquiescence to demands for tolerance or even wise and well-intentioned calls from religious or political leaders.  It is not defended by scouring the crumbs of theology, faith, and history for resources that suggest it as a viable alternative.  A revitalized understanding of pluralism will come from wrestling anew with the depths of our own tradition.

[1] R. Alan Culpepper, The New Interpreter's Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 229.

[2] Jonathan Sacks, The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations, 2nd ed. (London: Continuum, 2003), 58.

[3] Diana L Eck, A New Religious America: How a "Christian Country" Has Now Become the World's Most Religiously Diverse Nation, 1st ed. (New York, NY: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), 23.

[4] Sacks, The Dignity of Difference, 17.

One Response to ““New Neighbors, New Pluralism?” By Jenny Replogle”

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