Theology in a Pluralist Context -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

I must admit that I've done my theological studies in a relatively non-pluralist environment.  I went to a Christian college and then earned two degrees at one of the leading Evangelical institutions.  While my studies were ecumenical and often challenging, I didn't explore theological issues in the company of those of differing religious or no religious traditions.  I then taught at a Christian college before becoming a pastor.  It is in this latter context that I have engaged theology in a more pluralist context (not necessarily my congregation but in my interfaith work).  Martin Marty lifts up an intriguing thought here -- that theology is now being explored in pluralist contexts, even in  Jesuit institutions.  He also notes that there is great interest in exploring rather deeply one's own faith tradition in conversation with others.  It's not about mere tolerance, but actually understanding one's own faith better in conversation with the other.  Take a read and offer your thoughts!

Theology in a Pluralist Context
By MARTIN E. MARTY   FEB. 2, 2015
                                                                             Image: piccata / creative commons
“Religion in American Public Life” is the rubric that characterizes our weekly efforts at Sightings. Usually we find massive and looming topics and themes such as “Terrorism,” “The New Atheism,” “The Superbowl.” Sometimes—this week is one of them—we focus on an eddy, a niche, a modest topic, believing that such efforts often reveal much.

Teaching Theology in the Urban University

So, we will focus on “theology in a pluralist context,” or how to deal with religion-in-particular rather than with religion-in-general, in this case with the teaching of theology in a modern setting: the urban university.

That religion and theology are important topics is made clear in daily headlines and blogs. While they often deal with desperate and transcendent subjects, publics usually deal with them on micro-scales. How then to treat religion and theology when people of many faiths or no faiths or anti-faiths are greeted with a tense topic in the face of others who are not like them?

Why Teach Theology?

Let’s look at a cover topic in U.S. Catholic (Feb. 2015), “Why Teach Theology?” Susan Ross, a “seasoned professor,” pondered this question in an interview. She is a fellow University of Chicago alum and a good friend who teaches at Loyola University in Chicago. (Oh-oh! That must deal with a sheltered topic!?.) Loyola is a Jesuit University, and Jesuit, and Catholic, etc., sounds cozy. Students there take theology, which is given priority at Loyola and at hundreds of institutions with Catholic, Protestant, Other, and more religious auspices.

Once upon a time specific interpretations of specific faiths were forced on undergraduates; not now! Ross: “Fewer than half of the students at Loyola are Catholic. It’s a much more diverse group than in years past,” she says as she counts in one class alone five Muslims, one Jew, three Orthodox, and who knows what else? They deeply probe texts of the world's religious traditions, including Catholic texts, as they learn to know the neighbors’ faiths and give a critical reading to their own.

Teaching Beyond Mere Tolerance

Some on the faculty who may be chafing or rebelling over one or all traditions, regarding them as irrelevant or irritating, turn their backs. Some consider theology to be only a seminary- or priestly- topic, and, as Ross mentions, they are surprised to find that Freud (or, we’d add, Nietzsche or Marx) is critically examined just as are Loyola or Luther or Buber.

Many assume that teaching in such settings demands mere tolerance, a glossing over of differences or wishy-washiness. They believe that the pluralist solution is to be non-descript, a word which the dictionary defines as “neither here nor there,” while educators know that learning and understanding come from working through particular texts and issues, dealing courageously and imaginatively with the “descript”—a word I hope to see in the Oxford English Dictionary some day.

Students are Hungry for Critical Inspection and Thinking 

We all know, as does Professor Ross, that dealing descriptively with the descript involves risk, discretion, and empathy with others, but never welcomes evasive vagueness. What about the home team, if one is intellectually hospitable to the stranger, the other? Ross finds that ignorance of or indifference to her Catholic tradition is a bigger problem than defensiveness. “Somewhat to my surprise, students are hungry to do [critical] inspection and thinking about Catholicism.”

They live in a world where misunderstood and misused religious traditions can be lethal. She loves it when a student of any faith sees a dawning and says, “You know, I never thought of...‘something’ in a new way.” The old ways of isolation, sectarianism, and superficiality are not helping them.

The better colleges and universities manifest “descript” ways—and then show openness to the other.

Ross, Susan. "Why Teach Theology?" U.S. Catholic 80:12 (February 2015).

Image: piccata / creative commons.

To read previous issues of Sightings, visit
Author, Martin E. Marty, is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at

To comment, email the Editor, Myriam Renaud, at
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Steve Kindle said…
Speaking of Buber, ever since our Christian consciences were upgraded by his notions of I and Thou, and I and It, mission work has never been the same. Rather than consider all non-Christians as objects for conversion (Its), many now engage in purposeful conversation with former adversaries with understanding, not necessarily conversion, in mind. As one missiologist put it to me, if a conversation partner is not open to learning from the other, there is no real concern for the partner, only concern for conversion. I applaud this wholeheartedly.

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