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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Religious Exclusivism and Pluralism as a Political Project

Event Recap

Miroslav Volf, the Henry B. Wright Professor of Systemic Theology at Yale Divinity School and founding director of Yale Center for Faith and Culture, delivered the Boisi Center’s 11th annual Prophetic Voices Lecture on March 14 to an eager audience on the topic of “Religious Exclusivism and Pluralism as a Political Project.”

Political pluralism, Volf argued, exists when institutions protect the political rights of all people, regardless of their beliefs. Its converse is political exclusivism, in which an overarching vision of life (such as Saudi Wahhabi Islam or Soviet communism) is enshrined in political institutions and used to punish or repress those who do not share it. Religious pluralism is the theological claim that many religions can provide access to the divine along with effective avenues for human flourishing. It is opposed to religious exclusivism, whose adherents Volf described in three categories: “strong truth exclusivists” who view their faith as the only true faith; “weak truth exclusivists” who believe that their faith merely contains a more complete truth than others; and “salvation exclusivists” who believe that their faith alone can provide human flourishing and save souls.

Today, Volf said, religious faiths are primarily exclusivist and often politically assertive—and despite predictions to the contrary, they are growing. At the same time, globalization encourages interdependence and homogeneity, spreads democratic ideals and gathers those of diverse faiths under the same political roof. A crucial challenge for societies around the world, then, is how to manage the convergence of religious exclusivism and calls for political pluralism. Volf emphasized that religious exclusivism is not necessarily tied to political exclusivism, and called for a decoupling of the two concepts. He argued that religious exclusivists can (and indeed many do) embrace political pluralism, citing examples across time and traditions from seventeenth-century Baptists to twentieth century Sufis.

During the robust question and answer session following his lecture, Volf defended his argument that truth claims inherent in religious faiths are not at odds with political pluralism. While religions often profess superiority, he suggested that most still admit their imperfection in the interpretation of the divine. When asked whether religion is the only means to human flourishing, Volf clarified that there are robust secular as well as religious visions of common good, citing the philosophers Nietzsche, Marx and Kant.

Earlier, Professor Volf had conducted a seminar at the Boisi Center for graduate students and faculty in which he discussed contemporary conflicts between religion and pluralism in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. He also discussed the book he is writing with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair on faith and globalization, based on a course they jointly taught at Yale.