Huston Smith, pluralism and truth

The AP interviews Huston Smith (via Godspy) on his new book The Soul of Christianity. I’ve always enjoyed Smith’s writing, even though I have fairly substantial disagreements with him. He’s very good on debunking “scientism” and pointing out that science does not give us an exhaustive account of reality, as the article mentions.

Where I depart from Smith is in his religious pluralism. He tends to view each of the “great” religions as expressions of a kind of “perennial philosophy,” each one teaching us essentially the same important truths about ourselves, God and the universe. To his credit, he’s not a kind of metaphysical reductionist – if anything he probably has a more robust ontolgy than most contemporary Christian theologians! But he doesn’t think the particular claims of individual religions are essential to the truth that they all affirm.

My problem with that kind of pluralism is that it assumes a kind of privileged epistemic position from which we can determine what constitutes the “essential” core of each religion. But how do we determine which aspects of, say, Christianity or Hinduism or Islam are “essential” and which are “inessential”? To take the most obvious example, the Christian claim that Jesus is the unique incarnation of the Son of God is essential to Christianity, but pretty clearly unacceptable to adherents of other religions. But pluralism can’t allow that kind of exclusive claim. So, the ostensibly humble and tolerant pluralist often ends up being quite intolerant of the particualristic claims made by individual religions.

I think a better position is one of epistemic humility. We should affirm the truth-claims of our tradition, but recognize that our knowledge of ultimate things is likely partial and distorted. “We see in a mirror dimly” and could be mistaken in what we affirm. And because these matters are difficult to discern, it may well be that adherents of other traditions are justified in what they believe, even if we think that what they believe is, at least partly, false.


7 thoughts on “Huston Smith, pluralism and truth

  1. Kevin

    This is my field of study, so I’m dying to comment at length about it. I’ll briefly note that the nature of pluralism depends on the pluralistic approach in question. There is an enormous pluralism of pluralisms, some of which exhibit “convergent” tendencies (e.g., paths up one mountain to the same summit) while others are more divergent (e.g., many mountains).

    The type of stance you seem to be affirming is more or less consistent with the “orientational pluralism” espoused by evangelical Protestant S. Mark Heim in his Salvations: Truth and Difference in Religion. I have major problems with Heim’s stance (not least because I’m a pluralist in the old-style John Hick mold, though I agree Hick’s own model is deeply flawed), but he’s a compelling writer and deserves lengthy consideration.

    OK, I’ll shut up now, because if I don’t I’ll go on for pages.


  2. Lee

    Josh – I haven’t read Troelsch. What would you recommend of his?

    Kevin – Thanks for stopping by, and please, don’t restrain yourself on my account!

    I think my biggest problem with Hick’s approach is that, given his Kantian epistemology (we have no direct knowledge of the “Real an sich“) it’s far from clear how he can turn around and affirm that all religions are equally “true” manifestations of the human encounter with transcendent reality. How is he, on his own terms, in a position to know that?

    I am, though, not as familiar with all the literature in this area as I probably should be, so I am open to persuasion.

    Heim sounds interesting – I may check him out.

  3. Joshie

    Whoops, I left out a “t”. His name is actually spelled Troeltsch. Check out _The Absoluteness of Christianity and the History of Religions_.

  4. Bill

    Lee, your approach of epistemic humility is spot on. In fact, months ago I remember quoting you on it.

    It is a pleasure to be back to reading your posts.

  5. Pingback: From inclusivism to (soft) pluralism? « A Thinking Reed

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