McClendon on Convictions and Pluralism

Last week, I read James Wm. McClendon and James M. Smith’s book “Convictions: Defusing Religious Relativism,” it’s a highly recommended book for anyone interested in religious language and rationality, ethics and theology. It is difficult to get through due to his heavey useage of philosophy, espeically JL Austin’s “Speech-Act Theory” but McClendon’s clear writing style helps to make this difficult subject matter more palatable. I was reading it in preparation for my upcoming presentation I’m working on for a Quaker conference in June. Questions of religious relativism and pluralism are certainly on my mind because of this and I have been on the lookout to see what others have said on the subject. One main question I have is “How do other traditions work through and deal with religious pluralism?” I’m recognizing that rationality, and how we make truth claims about our religious experiences and faith are essentially some of the main questions Quakerism now struggles with. That said, I found McClendon’s book somewhat of a dog to get through, but worth the effort (if you want a somewhat briefer read chapters 1, 2, 4 and 6). McClendon was a baptist/free-church theologian of the highest order: his three volume systematic theology is one of the best peace church theological resources we have from the past century. It’s a treasure trove. If you haven’t, please take a chance to read something by McClendon you won’t be disappointed.   Here are a few standout quotes from the book:

Conviction [for McClendon and Smith] means a persistent belief such that if X (a person or community) has a conviction, it will not easily be relinquished and it cannot be relinquished without making X a significantly different person (or community) than before. ((McClendon and Smith, 1994: 5))
Convictions are the beliefs that make people what they are. They must therefore be taken very seriously by those who have them. This means that to take any person seriously we must take that person’s convictions seriously, even if we do not ourselves share them. If we regard integrity and a certain degree of consistency as important elements in being a person, we should neither expect nor want others’ convictions to be easily changed or lightly taken up. On the other hand, if we have a true esteem for our own convictions, we will want them to be shared in appropriate ways by anyone whom we regard. A certain tension appears here. If persons who hold opposed convictions are to come to share common ones, then some sort of exchange must take place in which the disparate partners communicate with, persuade, change one another in significant ways, so that one or both become significantly different persons in the process. ((McClendon and Smith, 1994:7-8))
Perspectivism – It regards convictional conflict as expected, but not inevitable, fundamental but not ulitmate, enduring but not inherently ineradicable. There are, in this view, common elements among differing sets of convictions, but to discover and use them in resolving conflict requires measures that cannot be limited along convictional lines. Persons or comunities with different convictions will experience, think, and speak about their worlds differently, and these differences will not necessarily be the result of mistakes or character flaws. But neither are they walls or electronic scramblers, making communication, undersanding, or even persusasion among worlds impossible. Or, at least, so claims perspectivism. ((McClendon and Smith, 1994:9))
By theology or theoretics…we mean the discovery, examination, and transformation of the conviction set of a given convictional community, carried on with a view to discovering and modifying the relation of the member convictions to one another, to other (nonconvictional) beliefs helf by the community, and to whatever else there is. ((McClendon and Smith, 1994:184))