Tolerant, open, pluralist or multicultural

This week I had the pleasure of a few days reminiscing and learning at an alumni and academic conference for Paideia which I wrote about in my last post.

At the opening ceremony, Professor Moshe Halbertal, who has long been a contributor and supporter of Paideia, gave a short lecture on the nature of how we approach diversity as a society. It struck me as a really helpful way of considering the various ways we have and can create ways to deal with the other/s.

He outlined four different approaches:

1. The Tolerant society; this interested me as I've always disliked the word 'tolerance' - it sounds like someone is being put-up-with. Halbertal explained it as a society in which the other is wrong but the majority agree to suffer them. John Locke was the great proponent of this approach. It acknowledges that one can't coerce someone to believe something, only to do - there is no real religious act without internalisation; so you might be able to insist on empty practice but not real religious engagement and thus it is meaningless and shouldn't be tried. Tolerance doesn't undermine the concept of truth for the majority, because it gives the other the right to be mistaken. It is a rather paternalistic and patronising approach.

2. The open society suggests there is one single truth claim, and that we can come closer to it through discussion together with the other. Halbertal referred us to John Stuart Mill's 'On Liberty' as the best expression of this. Mill, according to what I understood, argues that the limit of tolerance is whether those you tolerate, tolerate you, though I may be imposing on what was said as I've always felt this a big issue in our acceptance of other strands of Judaism.

3. The Pluralist society; this doesn't suffer the mistakes of the other but does grant the other respect. Isaiah Berlin was the example of a thinker Halbertal gave of this. The pluralist argues that you can't grade one way of life against another as all embody a different standard. A pluralist appreciates that anothers way isnt for them but can see it's value. While the open society hopes to move towards truth through openness to the other, the pluralist questions if there is one truth. But Halbertal was clear that this is not relativism. Relativism says there is no one ultimate value, this is rather an expression of a pluralism of values.

4. The Multicultural society; which we are yet to really achieve! Multiculturalism doesn't just tolerate or support the other, and it doesn't just affirm the value of the other but acknowledges that the existence of the other impacts my life and a deep conversation with the other makes my life more meaningful and my understanding deeper. In a multicultural society the presence of the other enriches you.

Halbertal asked whether religion can be pluralist and not just tolerant? He argues that the sacred is often that which is allowed the least compromise. My own reflections were that perhaps it should be the most. I was also reminded of Moses standing on mount sinai and asking to see all of God. God says no, no one may see me and live - a clear expression that no human has a monopoly on truth. Or, as Halbertal quoted from Krister Stendahl: in the eyes of god we are all minorities.

These are all ideas I need to do more thinking and reflecting on, but which I appreciated deeply. May we all be minorities enriched by each other, comfortable with that we share, and celebrating our differences.


  1. Whether religion can be pluralist depends on the style of religious practice. Fundamentalists of any religious persuasion would probably disagree, but I think it is possible to practise one religion while acknowledging than other religions may suit others better than your own, whether for cultural reasons or any other.

    I believe it is also possible to believe that you have found a path to God while others have found other paths or see a different side of God's face. I think the story of the blind men and the elephant is a helpful illustration.


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