Religious pluralism revisited

One common criticism of the pluralistic view of religions–and one that I have found persuasive–is that it presupposes a “god’s eye” vantage point that seems to be ruled out by the theory itself. That is, asserting that all religions provide a partial perspective on the divine, seems to imply that the pluralist can discern clearly the Reality that the various religious traditions perceive only dimly.

John Hick, who probably has as large a claim as anyone to putting religious pluralism on the agenda of (Anglo-American) philosophy of religion, has a response to this objection. The pluralist hypothesis, he says, is an inductive hypothesis, founded in part on the assumption that religious experience is not illusory:

The advocate of the pluralist understanding cannot pretend to any such cosmic vision. How then does he profess to know that the situation is indeed as he depicts it? The answer is that he does not profess to know this, if by knowledge we mean infallible cognition. Nor indeed can anyone else claim to have knowledge, in this sense, of either the exclusivist or inclusivist picture. All of them are, strictly speaking, hypotheses. The pluralist hypothesis is arrived at inductively. One starts from the fact that many human beings experience life in relation to a limitlessly greater transcendent Reality–whether the direction of transcendence be beyond our present existence or within its hidden depths. […] Treating one’s own form of religious experience, then, as veridical–as an experience (however dim, like “seeing through a glass darkly”) of transcendent divine Reality–one then has to take account of the fact that there are other great streams of religious experience which take different forms, are shaped by different conceptualities, and embodied in different institutions, art forms, and life-styles. In other words, besides one’s own religion, sustained by its distinctive form of religious experience, there are also other religions, through each of which flows the life blood of a different form of religious experience. What account is one to give of this plurality? (Problems of Religious Pluralism, pp. 37-38)

Assuming that religious experience is to some extent veridical, Hick asks, is it more reasonable to think that one (and only one) tradition has discerned the truth about the divine, or that all the major traditions contain some truthful perception of that Reality? Hick’s argument is that the pluralistic hypothesis is the most reasonable.

Most mainline Christians (Protestant and Catholic) no longer take the hard-line exclusivist stance that Christianity is true and other religions simply false. They also generally affirm that adherents of other religions can find salvation (though there’s a variety of accounts about how that’s supposed to work). But mainline theology has generally moved in the direction of “inclusivism.” What Hick contends, though, is that inclusivism is a logically unstable half-way house between exclusivism and a more thorough-going pluralism. His argument hinges on his understanding of the nature of salvation.

For Hick, salvation is the process whereby we move from being self-centered to “Reality-centered.” That is, we become less preoccupied with our selves and move toward a universal compassion. Religion, then, is a vehicle for attaining salvation/liberation. And since, as seems evident, no one religion has a monopoly on this form of liberation, it seems reasonable to conclude that all religions with such spiritual and moral fruits are rooted in some kind of authentic experience of ultimate Reality. And it further seems to follow that no one religion can, on these grounds at any rate, claim to be the one unsurpassable truth.

Religions–with their complex systems of symbol, myth, metaphysics, ritual, devotional practices, ethical principles, art, and social organization–are culturally conditioned responses to an encounter with “the Real”–an encounter often mediated through charismatic leaders and founders. What accounts the differences among religions is the diversity among human beings: their cultures, their histories, and other factors that shape their response to ultimate Reality. The Real as it appears in forms of religion must be distinguished from the Real as it is in itself. Different religions may reflect different aspects of the Real, but, as far as we can observe their effects, it would be presumptuous to assert that one is superior to the rest.

Hick to some extent offers a pragmatic criterion of religious truth. Various culturally conditioned manifestations of the Real are true and good to the extent that they enable their adherents to move from self-centeredness to Reality-centeredness. “These many different perceptions of the Real, both theistic and non-theistic, can only establish themselves as authentic by their soteriological efficacy” (p. 44). This doesn’t mean that religions don’t make truth-claims, but that their ultimate claims–in this life at any rate–can only be evaluated by their efficacy in making salvation possible.

I think this version of pluralism is stronger than it’s often given credit for, and Hick has responses to some of the most common objections. But one question that occurs to me is whether the “soteriological efficacy” of a particular religion depends, at least in part, on its being believed in a non-pluralistic fashion. In other words, many of the great saints of the Christian tradition seem to be those who believed most wholeheartedly in Christianity’s truth claims. By contrast, if I come to see Christianity as one among many culturally conditioned responses to the Real, might it not be harder for the Christian narrative, symbols, practices, etc. to form me in a way that makes salvation/liberation possible? Won’t I be tempted to hold them at arm’s length, having seen them as the product of human minds as much as the divine mind?

Of course, Hick might well respond that this is simply the position that all moderately critical religious believers find themselves in. Anyone who has rejected the inerrancy of the Bible and the infallibility of church and tradition must reckon with the fact that, to some extent, their religion is man-made. It may be a response to a divine revelation, but that revelation is mediated through human language, symbols, and concepts. Wholehearted, uncritical belief just isn’t an option.


12 thoughts on “Religious pluralism revisited

  1. Abob

    Interesting post – you’ve definitely made the pluralist position seem more plausible than it ever has to me before. I think some of the credibility is lost, though, at least for me, when it is brought from an abstract to a practical level. Religious traditions don’t just stop with experience of the Real, they go on to say what the Real is like based on that experience. But once we are in the realm of truth claims, which all religious traditions make, we can test them by whatever means we think it best to test religious truth claims and I’m open to certain pragmatic criteria here. For example for me the truth claims of the various eastern religions don’t strike me as worthy of belief for various reasons. Most important is that they speak of the goal of becoming Reality-centered as a complete obliteration of personality and individuality. But this means that everything that I see as good about the world disappears – no more love, relationships, etc. What a religion ought to do is redeem the present world – take away the bad but retain and perfect the good. It seems to me only the theistic religions do this. And these, again, differ in truth claims. Insofar as Jesus embodied everything that seems good about all the religions and claimed some exclusivity on his own behalf, that is where my commitment goes. Of course, this doesn’t mean there isn’t much that is true and admirable in the world’s other religions.

  2. Abob, thanks for the comment. I agree with you that religions do seem to diverge at the level of particulars and that creates a problem for this kind of view. (Though it’s possible, I think, that some of the differences might turn out to be reconcilable at some level.)

    For what it’s worth, I’m not endorsing pluralism, but trying to see how strong a case can be made for it.

  3. The problem with building pluralism on the foundation of “the Real” is that it actually leaves things exactly where they were. An analogy: views of the natural world in very different cultures are culturally conditioned responses to encounters with the natural world, but that doesn’t actually tell you much about them, because it leaves out most of what anyone considers relevant to evaluating different views of the natural world. I take it that Hick’s verificationism is an attempt to supplement the pluralism with something that deals with this vagueness problem; but ‘soteriological efficacy’ is not something you just go out and see — you reach it by inference from other things, and, indeed, all the other things that exclusivists build their cases on.

    I like your suggestion in the second-to-the-last paragraph; and I think that, if Hick did answer in the way you suggest in the last paragraph, the natural response to that objection would be that ‘wholeheartedly’ and ‘uncritically’ are actually two different things. (Indeed, someone who holds something completely uncritically arguably can’t be holding it wholeheartedly, because he doesn’t devote much thought to it, as a wholehearted person would.)

    1. Yes, that’s a good point about distinguishing wholehearted and uncritical acceptance.

      Regarding soteriological efficacy, Hick maintians that it is observable (or at least that it has some observable manifestations) and that–to the extent that it’s observable–there’s no clear “winner” among the great religious traditions. Though, perhaps you mean to criticize his generic and univocal definition of salvation?

  4. Well, it’s arguably observable in a broad sense; but my point is that it’s not observable without extensive inferences from what is directly observable, and when the inferences are taken into account the sorts of things on which they are based would have to be just the sorts of things exclusivists point to. But, of course, exclusivist inferences are precisely what are under dispute: this, I take it, is the reason one gets no clear ‘winner’ among different religious traditions. For instance, an exclusivist may appeal to typology, religious experience, moral activity, etc. — but exclusivists will appeal to these things under such a description as will yield their own view. If you deliberately eliminate this level of interpretation, all you have are a bunch of things that might be interpreted in any number of ways, and can’t decide between them on their own. But this hasn’t shown that there is no actual ‘winner’; it just shows that there is no actual winner if you don’t reason the way exclusivists do. And that’s pretty much where we started.

    I don’t mind the threaded comments, but the fact that the names are flipping from side to side confused me considerably for several seconds.

  5. So how did Hick arrive at the conclusion that Reality is universal compassion? How does he explain actions that are neither self-centered nor universalist, e.g., Abraham nearly sacrificing Isaac, soldiers dying in battle, that sort of thing?

    1. Well, the book I’m reading isn’t really about ethics, but Hick does seem to think that morality points in the general direction of greater compassion: of universalizing concern for the interests and well-being of all people. So, people who are in closer proximity to the divine will, he thinks, tend to become more compassionate, and we can judge religions in part by whether they produce such moral fruits. (He does allow that different beliefs about the way the world works, what counts as a harm or benefit, etc. will result in different moral codes.)

  6. It sounds like he *is* taking a God’s-eye view there. Because while I agree that unselfishness is a ubiquitous feature of moral codes, there are other common values that tend to limit compassion — purity, reciprocity, personal loyalty, and a general sense of a cosmic struggle between good and evil. I seem to recall that one stage Dante had to go through in his Divine Comedy was getting over feeling sorry for the damned. It’s not that I can’t see Hick’s point, it’s just that in order to see all this “pointing toward” something you have to read selectively, much as many early Christian writers did when they read their favorite pagan stories and philosophies (or the Old Testament, for that matter) as pointing toward Christ. In other words, it’s a view from faith, not from somewhere outside faith.

    1. Hick might well argue though (I don’t know if he would argue it, since I’m not familiar with his overall ethical views) that ethics is “outside of faith” in the sense that it’s amenable to reason and thus can serve as a yardstick for evaluating religion. That doesn’t seem like a crazy view to me, even granting that there’s a plurality of values.

  7. But if religion and ethics are different, then why evaluate religion according to ethics? Indeed, why do we need religion if we already have ethics? It sounds like he’s almost saying, “You shouldn’t confuse apples and oranges, but we’ll evaluate the oranges by how much they resemble apples.”

    1. That’s a good point. I think there’s an answer, but I don’t think it’s the one Hick would give. My response would be that ethics and religion are different things (at the very least, religion is not reducible to ethics), but I’m not sure that response is open to him since he wants to use moral development as the yardstick for evaluating religions.

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