Cultural Landscapes of Religious Pluralism: Networks of Difference and the Common Good

by Margaret M. Grubiak, PhD and Timothy K. Parker, PhD, appearing in Volume 32

What does it mean to enact religious pluralism, a key component of the American project? One way architects have answered this question is to create one space for multiple religions to worship and coexist, an effort that reached a high-water mark in the 1950s in the United States. Will Herberg in his 1955 book Protestant, Catholic, Jew explored the friendly interfaith dialogue among the so-called “big three” religions at midcentury, a major expansion of the religious tent beyond America’s Protestant tradition.1 Architects went to work in constructing spaces that would accommodate this broadened cooperative understanding of religion among the “big three,” and the fruits of this work are well known: Eero Saarinen’s MIT Chapel of 1955, Harrison and Abramovitz’s chapels at Brandeis University of 1954, and Walter Netsch’s Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel, begun in 1959 and completed in 1962.2 Bruce Goff’s unrealized 1950 crystal chapel for the University of Oklahoma in Norman imagined a nondenominational space whose crystalline structure unabashedly gestured toward the utopian.3 In the immediate postwar period, we can understand these architectural solutions to interfaith space as part of a utopian vision of religious pluralism in America.

Interior of the Chapel at MIT by Eero Saarinen, 1955. Photo credit: Lee Kennedy Co. Inc

Interior of the Chapel at MIT by Eero Saarinen, 1955. Photo credit: Lee Kennedy Co. Inc





Today, spaces that are interfaith, nondenominational, pluralistic, or multifaith—descriptors variously given to spaces of religious pluralism—remain a challenge for those seeking to understand and shape sacred spaces, particularly as our understanding of pluralism expands to include Islam, Buddhism, atheism, and more. There are big-picture questions for those wanting to craft understanding across religions: How might architecture provide a means to create tolerance and to honor religious differences? More particularly, how do these questions play out in the context of American culture, where religious freedom is foundational to our national identity?

The River Building by SANAA at Grace Farms in New Canaan, Connecticut, 2015. Photo credit:

The River Building by SANAA at Grace Farms in New Canaan, Connecticut, 2015. Photo credit:

New work toward these questions has been carried out within the context of multifaith spaces, including airport multifaith chapels and SANAA’s Grace Farms in New Canaan, Connecticut, of 2015. The Manchester Architecture Research Centre’s project on multifaith spaces and a Radcliffe Institute project and website considering multifaith spaces are just two examples of the energies being given to studying such spaces.4 This attention to multifaith spaces has been true for both architects and scholars for a number of reasons. In focusing on designing one building, or a set of connected spaces, de novo, architects can control the elements and authorship that go into these commissions. They appreciate elemental aspects like light and water, include common-denominator symbols or words like “In the Beginning” in a 2010 Bryant University Interfaith Center by Gwathmey, Siegel, and Associates, and use phenomenological approaches to invoke the numinous in ways that may appeal to people of many different faiths. For scholars, multifaith spaces lend themselves to analysis through conventional means: understanding the architect, the client, the setting, the social and temporal context of a single building. The attempt to craft interfaith accommodation and understanding within one building has occupied the lion’s share in religious pluralism efforts, both in architectural practice and scholarly research.

Bryant University Interfaith Center, 2010. The inscription around the top of the wall reads

Bryant University Interfaith Center, 2010. The inscription around the top of the wall reads “In the Beginning” in five languages: Hebrew, Latin, English, Sanskrit, and Arabic. Photo credit: Shawmut

We seek to turn our attention away from the singular multifaith space toward a larger, messier understanding of what we call cultural landscapes of religious pluralism. Multifaith spaces run the risk of flattening true theological difference. The conundrum of how to preserve difference while promoting a shared understanding persists. How might Americans, who may never specifically seek out a multifaith space, encounter and see religious pluralism while going about their daily lives? How might we retrain our gaze to see anew how interfaith understanding actually operates in the lived experience? We argue here that taking a wider view of cultural landscapes of religious pluralism—as opposed to discrete multifaith spaces—is a more fruitful, realistic way to think about how we can construct interfaith understanding.

Conceptual Problems and Promising Approaches

As cultural landscapes of religious pluralism entail such a broad view, the project we are advocating raises important interdisciplinary and interpretive challenges. A few conceptual remarks may be helpful here. First, we need not settle upon a common definition of religion. What we seek is a better hold upon the diffuse and diverse material-cultural expression of religion. Furthermore, an embrace of religious pluralism that honors real theological difference raises the problem of intractable conflict among worldviews, which calls for a constructive theology of interreligious dialogue. And all of this takes place in a decidedly public arena with political implications, especially so in the American context that enshrines a separation between church and state in the Constitution.

A focus upon material religion entails a focus upon sacrality. There is much to treasure in the long tradition of appropriating phenomenology for interpretations of architecture. As a philosophical method rooted in the conviction that our understanding of reality is marked by its being partially constituted by human intention, it is valuable in its insistence that objects and environments be considered in light of embodied, lived experience in all its intersubjectivity. It resists reduction to form or style or any single factor. But its appropriation for the study of religion, and by extension religious or “sacred” sites, has tended to presume some extrahuman domain of divine reality—“the sacred”—which too readily flattens real religious difference. Phenomenological glosses on religion have been critiqued in many ways, such as historian of religion Jonathan Z. Smith’s demonstration that human agency at least partially constructs sacrality through ritual and rite.5 But a presumption of “the sacred” is often too handy when confronted with religious difference, and especially interfaith spaces that elide such difference. “The sacred” offers a way out: the differences are human constructs; the reality to which they point is the real deal. Hence, interfaith spaces are about “transcendence” or “the ineffable.” Lost is Buddhist sacred space, Catholic sacred space, Muslim sacred space, and so on. Furthermore, only particular subsets of Buddhists, Catholics, or Muslims are likely to be moved by such generic “sacred” space. So how “interfaith” is it really?

The recent work of University of California, Santa Barbara, scholar of religion Ann Taves is promising here, as she argues that sacrality occurs through human attribution of sacred status and need not presume a transcendent reality about which we can agree.6 Markers of religious identity across the spectrum from devotional object to billboard to building to district offer many opportunities to consider religious pluralism as enacted in public in and through material culture. As attributions of sacrality are a subspecies of marking things as special, this approach can include those who are “spiritual but not religious,” and even atheists. It offers ways to compare experiences deemed sacred among “people who orient around religion differently,” to use InterFaith Youth Core founder Eboo Patel’s phrase. Yet it also retains proper focus on distinct religious identities, and phenomenological analysis of their expression remains worthwhile. Indeed, Taves aims to reconcile the phenomenological tradition (which sees something beyond human construction at work in religious experience) with what neuroscientists can learn about how humans react to (and thereby value) different objects, settings, and events.

The neuroscience is beyond the scope of this commentary and is at any rate only burgeoning, but the promise of this view of sacrality is this: it is better suited to addressing diverse and conflicting interpretations since it focuses upon how and why particular peoples attribute sacrality to particular places, buildings, sites, practices, and objects. Answers to these questions involve broader socio-cultural contexts and are akin to other ways things are set apart. Regarding conflict, however, if those who orient around religion differently deem spaces (and practices, etc.) sacred on differing terms, and sacred landscapes are contested landscapes, how is productive discourse possible? While we may not need (or ever hope to have) a common definition of religion, we do need a theory of religions that can handle conflicting traditions while retaining difference. Conceptions of theological pluralism that minimize difference are markedly unproductive, as in philosopher of religion John Hick’s reduction of theological differences to vagaries of human culture.

One promising alternative is the work of Methodist University theologian J. R. Hustwit, who outlines an approach that stems from philosophical hermeneutics but eschews its tendency toward relativism in favor of an “ontological turn.”7 All is interpretation since ultimate truth is beyond human comprehension, but not all interpretations are equal. Rather, adherents in this contested field aim for ever-closer approximation of the truth in and through critical engagement with those of divergent and conflicting views. Drawing upon major strands of American Pragmatism (as does Taves via William James), Hustwit advocates a “fabilist hermeneutics” wherein “certainty and objectivity are unattainable, [yet] movement toward these ideals is possible.”8 The resulting theology of interreligious dialogue aims at more than getting along: it seeks real theological “mutual enrichment” through a “differential pluralism.”9 As Hustwit puts it, “a plurality of truth claims is practically useful because more competition drives inquiry closer to the truth.”10 Such an interreligious hermeneutics is a program of constructive postmodernism. It is incompatible with fundamentalism but otherwise fits well with a variety of theological traditions as it seeks to move beyond mere deconstruction or suspicion toward metanarratives. Honoring very real limits of human knowledge, it promises a means by which religious adherents can remain true to their own identities yet benefit from genuine interreligious dialogue.

All of this is solidly within the realm of theological discourse, yet the cultural landscapes to which we are drawing your attention are encountered in public, largely extratheological settings. In fact, we should follow here religion scholar Diana Eck’s lead in distinguishing between “theological discourse” and “civic discourse.”11 Far from a simple private/public distinction, Eck (founding director of Harvard’s Pluralism Project and a leader in studying the phenomenon) insists that both discourses can be quite public but are different in the terms and criteria they employ in debate. For our purposes, the theological discourse of interreligious hermeneutics is important for maintaining a hold on the differences at play, but it is not sufficient: How do we frame our interpretive view upon landscapes of religious pluralism such that substantive civil discourse can thrive in and through such difference and contestation?

The political-philosophical literature of deliberative democracy is helpful here, especially the notion of the public sphere. Metaphorically rooted in the ancient Greek agora as a place of public exchange of ideas, the public sphere is the discursive space in which the shared work of politics occurs. But since its first full statement by Jürgen Habermas,12 it is also an idea that has received substantive and ongoing critique. For instance, Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor argues against the ideal (and bourgeois) nature of a single public sphere, situating the phenomenon within what he calls “social imaginaries.”13 Therefore, there are multiple public spheres, though they are related in a kind of nested hierarchy since some are subsets of other, larger ones. Feminist, subaltern, and other critiques of the idea take this further by insisting that there are not only multiple publics but also counterpublics. These latter are driven by resistance to what the dominant publics deem the common good toward which deliberation is oriented.

Perhaps the most promising recent version of such discursive space is that proposed by Yale political philosopher Seyla Benhabib, who outlines an agonistic model of democratic engagement that celebrates not only differing publics and counterpublics but the contest itself among them. In her words, this is an “interlocking net of

. . . multiple forms of associations, networks, and organizations . . . a public sphere of mutually interlocking and overlapping networks and associations of deliberation, contestation, and argumentation.”14 It is within and across such networks that the full material manifestation of American religious pluralism is found, its diverse particularity honored, and peaceful, substantive, and productive dialogue nourished.

Practical Problems and Promising Approaches

So now that we have outlined how the embrace of religious difference rather than the flattening of that difference leads to richer understanding, and how material culture at different scales and displayed in public makes religious difference real and ripe for engagement, here is how a view of an interfaith landscape might work: Imagine driving down a major thoroughfare and seeing, in succession, a Protestant church, a mosque, and a Greek Orthodox church. As you move through the landscape, you observe multiple instances of situated religion embodied in the architecture that realizes the theological truth claims for each particular tradition. And yet in your own personal movement through real space and time, your gaze also encounters a landscape of religious pluralism knitted together as a whole. Sally Promey at Yale University published a photograph of this experience of successive different houses of worship in a compressed landscape in her co-edited volume The Visual Culture of American Religions, arguing that “the visible display of religion allows individuals and groups to approach and to imagine perspectives different from their own. Visible religion takes on an active cultural role: rehearsing diversity, practicing pluralism.”15

The seeing of religious difference in public forces people to make sense of “the other,” often involuntarily, and therefore practice or enact religious pluralism. The reception of the Temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (1974) outside of Washington, D.C., is an illustrative case in point of a cultural landscape of religious pluralism. This building emerges dramatically to drivers along D.C.’s Capital Beltway, its six gold spires and white marble gleaming in the daylight and theatrically lit at nighttime. One 1973 assessment of the Mormon Temple noted that the temple “only adds to the architectural, cultural and religious pluralism of our society and our environment.”16 The fact that the temple, which by its very visibility encourages people to notice it, is nevertheless closed to all but “temple-worthy” Mormons has prompted an interfaith give-and-take. This lived landscape forces confrontation with religious difference, and the public here has responded. For over forty years, graffiti over the Beltway in sight of the temple reads “Surrender Dorothy,” a reference to The Wizard of Oz movie and a humorous reframing of the building as something fantastical. But there is also a weightier satirical critique here of the Mormon religion as something fraudulent, akin to the Wizard of Oz, who is revealed as merely “the man behind the curtain.” As this example suggests, in the involuntary confrontation with religion in the everyday landscape, people have found ways to react to religious difference, contest divergent viewpoints, and ultimately begin to integrate themselves within a shared pluralist landscape.





This concept of an interfaith landscape can also encourage us to think of other aspects of the messiness of religious pluralism that are not concerns of de novo multifaith spaces. For example, what of the “afterlife” (to use architectural historian Gretchen Buggeln’s term) of particular denominational buildings as they confront new issues? The Catholic Church’s repurposing of Philip Johnson and John Burgee’s famed Crystal Cathedral (1977–1981) for Reverend Robert Schuller in Garden Grove, California, raises questions about how one theological tradition transforms a space from another theological tradition for its own use.17 The gutting of the Philip Johnson interior—to the chagrin of preservationists—suggests that a one-size-fits-all approach to denominational space does not work, stressing the real differences in theological perspectives that multifaith spaces obscure.

The chapel at Duke University. Photo credit:

The chapel at Duke University. Photo credit:

Theologies conflict in other instances, too. In 2015, Duke University, originally a Methodist institution that now sees itself as nonsectarian, proposed that the Muslim call to prayer be broadcast on Fridays from the Duke University Chapel, constructed as a Methodist space. Outrage over the proposal came from outside the campus community, particularly through the ire of Franklin Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham, who saw the use of a Christian space for Muslim practice as an affront to Christianity. Ultimately, the Duke administration pulled the plan to broadcast the Muslim call to prayer, but thinking about the intersection of a visibly Christian (neo-Gothic) space with an auditory Muslim prayer forces a confrontation of religious pluralism in new ways.18 Similarly, the College of William and Mary, founded as an Anglican college but made a public institution in 1906, became embroiled in a controversy in 2007 when it removed a cross from its chapel. While conservative critics denounced the removal as bending to political correctness, the college had to confront what to do with a historically Christian space at an institution required to respect religious difference.19 The solutions here are not easy or perfect—William & Mary decided to put the cross in an acrylic display case in the chapel as a way to honor a Christian past and a multifaith present—but our point is that engaging in theologically specific spaces, and the ways they confront religious change and understanding, is a lived landscape of religious pluralism that deserves attention.

The eighteen-inch brass cross on the altarpiece of the chapel of the College of William and Mary was removed in 2007. Photo credit: Margaret Grubiak

The eighteen-inch brass cross on the altarpiece of the chapel of the College of William and Mary was removed in 2007. Photo credit: Margaret Grubiak

Toward Many Cultural Landscapes of Religious Pluralism

An attributional model of sacrality, an interreligious hermeneutic stance, and public networks of difference: these are promising conceptual devices for framing the subject of religious pluralism. And a commitment to consider the many ways religion is manifest in concrete, material form presents many possibilities for further study. The reader can surely call to mind examples to add to those just explored. But to what end? What is needed is a fuller, more comprehensive picture of how Promey’s “rehearsing diversity, practicing pluralism” takes place. We need a way to map the changing nature of these phenomena.

Consider the 1748 Nolli map of Rome: the way it brought to the mind and to the eye a new window upon the city, integrating into the figure-ground clarity of open and closed space the interiors of buildings considered part of the public sphere of the day.20 We aim to join contemporary mapping technology, such as ArcGIS, to the ever-growing world of data that have geo-spatial implications pertaining to how people orient around religion in material terms—to map the material-cultural embodiment of religious pluralism. The idea is to create new permutations upon the Nolli contribution to visual representation that speak to our current challenge (and opportunity) to engage and enact religious pluralism in the cultural landscapes we inhabit together.


We are just now laying the groundwork for this stage of the project. For now, a few potential topics must suffice as a conclusion. For a given region, city, etc., imagine: How would we visually and spatially compare religious-affiliation demographics with levels of expression in material culture (monumental, memorial, etc.) and thereby map the degrees of divergence between them? How would we map spatial and material patterns of religion-oriented hate speech, vandalism, harassment, and threats? How would we chart special cases of changes in material culture due to political and demographic shifts, such as the current removal of Civil War monuments in New Orleans? Perhaps they relate—in ways yet to be made clear, yet worth clarifying—to the cultural landscapes of religious pluralism rooted in the history of the place (from Muslim slaves to varieties of Christian apologists and opponents of slavery, and so on). What other case studies or ways to frame the subject may be promising? Whatever direction this mapping project takes, our aim remains to achieve a better purchase upon an admittedly complex and fluid phenomenon—cultural landscapes of religious pluralism—all in the service of understanding, engaging, and nourishing the difference that constitutes a vibrant and open democratic society.