Gods in America: Religious Pluralism in the United States

Trevor Burrows

With the constant barrage of updates on our respective fields of interest by way of Twitter, Facebook, blog posts, or listservs - not to mention good old-fashioned paper catalogs from publishers - it’s always a pleasant surprise to come across a new book that you haven’t seen mentioned anywhere. A few WorldCat search queries recently led me to just such a surprise by pointing to the recently published Gods in America: Religious Pluralism in the United States (Oxford, 2013), an anthology edited by Charles L. Cohen and Ronald L. Numbers. Although I have not yet had a chance to read each and every essay, I thought I would share a few impressions on the volume here.

Gods in America boasts a stunning list of notable contributors: Amanda Porterfield, Thomas Tweed, R. Marie Griffith, Deborah Dash Moore, and many others have essays included in the volume. As is to be expected, the diversity of their interests is reflected in the subjects of the book’s essays. Porterfield offers the first essay of the collection, a historiographical review of the concept of religious pluralism and its historical relationship to the academic study of religion entitled “Religious Pluralism in Religious Studies.” She traces two currents of scholarly attitudes toward religious pluralism as both an object of inquiry and an American ideology or practice: one that has sanctioned an idea of religious pluralism as a positive guiding principle for understanding American religion (including scholars such as Catherine Albanese, Diane Eck, and William Hutchison), and another stream that has been more critical of the concept and of the role the academy may play in bolstering its cultural clout (D.G. Hart, Russell McCutcheon, Timothy Fitzgerald, and others are included in this second group). Porterfield’s thoughtful review of these scholars will be of interest to anyone who wrestles with the knotty concept of religious pluralism in their own work.

The volume’s opening section, of which Porterfield's essay is a part, provides larger overviews of the book’s theme from a variety of perspectives and includes a rich and substantial essay by Bret Carroll on space and pluralism entitled “Worlds in Space: American Religious Pluralism in Geographic Perspective.” In the second section, essays consider pluralism in the experience and history of American Protestantism, Catholicism, and Judaism, while the third section broadens the scope of inquiry to include Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. The fourth and fifth sections are more varied in their approaches and subjects. Essays in the fourth section consider the impact of religious pluralism on the experience of American women, the relationship between religious pluralism and various strains of popular religion, and the “invisibility” of the diversity of African-American religious experience in both popular discourse and academic scholarship. The final section includes discussions of shifting conceptions of pluralism in the post-World War II period, connections between American foreign policy and principles of religious pluralism at home and abroad, and the influence of American law on the legitimization of religious minorities in the public square.

Anthologies can sometimes feel uneven and unwieldy, but the essays in this volume complement each other quite nicely. Several of the essays surveying a specific religion - Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad on Islam or Deborah Dash Moore on Judaism, for instance - would make excellent entry points for readers looking to familiarize themselves with issues of pluralism in relation to a given tradition. A number of the essays in the final sections, such as Stephanie Mitchem’s contribution on African-American religious diversity and R. Marie Griffith’s chapter on women and pluralism, suggest possible questions, often quite provocative, to help guide future research. In this sense, Gods in America is not only an exceptional survey of the topic and a thorough introduction to many of its related themes, but is also a useful collection for thinking about fruitful questions for the future. It will certainly be of interest to many of RiAH's readers.


Edward J. Blum said…
thanks for the notice - looks fantastic!
Samuel Maynes said…
If you are interested in some new ideas on religious pluralism and the Trinity, please check out my website at www.religiouspluralism.ca, and give me your thoughts on improving content and presentation.

My thesis is that an abstract version of the Trinity could be Christianity’s answer to the world need for a framework of pluralistic theology.

In a constructive worldview: east, west, and far-east religions present a threefold understanding of One God manifest primarily in Muslim and Hebrew intuition of the Deity Absolute, Christian and Krishnan Hindu conception of the Universe Absolute Supreme Being; and Shaivite Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist apprehension of the Destroyer (meaning also Consummator), Unconditioned Absolute, or Spirit of All That Is and is not. Together with their variations and combinations in other major religions, these religious ideas reflect and express our collective understanding of God, in an expanded concept of the Holy Trinity.

The Trinity Absolute is portrayed in the logic of world religions, as follows:

1. Muslims and Jews may be said to worship only the first person of the Trinity, i.e. the existential Deity Absolute Creator, known as Allah or Yhwh, Abba or Father (as Jesus called him), Brahma, and other names; represented by Gabriel (Executive Archangel), Muhammad and Moses (mighty messenger prophets), and others.

2. Christians and Krishnan Hindus may be said to worship the first person through a second person, i.e. the experiential Universe or "Universal” Absolute Supreme Being (Allsoul or Supersoul), called Son/Christ or Vishnu/Krishna; represented by Michael (Supreme Archangel), Jesus (teacher and savior of souls), and others. The Allsoul is that gestalt of personal human consciousness, which we expect will be the "body of Christ" (Mahdi, Messiah, Kalki or Maitreya) in the second coming – personified in history by Muhammad, Jesus Christ, Buddha (9th incarnation of Vishnu), and others.

3. Shaivite Hindus, Buddhists, and Confucian-Taoists seem to venerate the synthesis of the first and second persons in a third person or appearance, ie. the Destiny Consummator of ultimate reality – unqualified Nirvana consciousness – associative Tao of All That Is – the absonite* Unconditioned Absolute Spirit “Synthesis of Source and Synthesis,”** who/which is logically expected to be Allah/Abba/Brahma glorified in and by union with the Supreme Being – represented in religions by Gabriel, Michael, and other Archangels, Mahadevas, Spiritpersons, etc., who may be included within the mysterious Holy Ghost.

Other strains of religion seem to be psychological variations on the third person, or possibly combinations and permutations of the members of the Trinity – all just different personality perspectives on the Same God. Taken together, the world’s major religions give us at least two insights into the first person of this thrice-personal One God, two perceptions of the second person, and at least three glimpses of the third.

* The ever-mysterious Holy Ghost or Unconditioned Spirit is neither absolutely infinite, nor absolutely finite, but absonite; meaning neither existential nor experiential, but their ultimate consummation; neither fully ideal nor totally real, but a middle path and grand synthesis of the superconscious and the conscious, in consciousness of the unconscious.

** This conception is so strong because somewhat as the Absonite Spirit is a synthesis of the spirit of the Absolute and the spirit of the Supreme, so it would seem that the evolving Supreme Being may himself also be a synthesis or “gestalt” of humanity with itself, in an Almighty Universe Allperson or Supersoul. Thus ultimately, the Absonite is their Unconditioned Absolute Coordinate Identity – the Spirit Synthesis of Source and Synthesis – the metaphysical Destiny Consummator of All That Is.

For more details, please see: www.religiouspluralism.ca

Samuel Stuart Maynes