From inclusivism to (soft) pluralism?

In his contribution to the collection Abraham’s Children: Jews, Christians, and Muslims in Conversation, Keith Ward offers a sketch of three different kinds of Christian religious pluralism:

Inclusive pluralism: The Wisdom of God that is embodied in Jesus is also available or present elsewhere. All humans participate in and can access this Wisdom, at least to some extent. “Jesus is the full embodiment of a truth dimly perceived by all since the beginning of history” (Abraham’s Children, p. 192). God wants everyone to be saved, and since many people have, through no fault of their own, not been made aware of the revelation of Jesus, there must be saving truth available outside the bounds of Christianity. Ward calls this “inclusive pluralism.” There are many paths to God leading to the possibility of eternal life, but the Christian path “shows most adequately what God is” (p. 193). What makes this a form of pluralism, rather than just inclusivism, I think, is that it allows for a positive role for other traditions (i.e., it doesn’t hold that all “good” adherents of other faiths are just “anonymous Christians”), even if it does give a certain priority to Christianity.

Hard pluralism: All religious paths (or all “great” religious paths) are equally true or valid ways of achieving salvation or approaching God. Because there is no conclusive evidence establishing the truth of any one tradition, all positions are equally justified and we cannot say that one is more “true” than the others. Ward associates this view with John Hick and also refers to it as “metaphysical pluralism.” Ward thinks that this view is basically incoherent because, as a matter of fact, different religions make contradictory truth-claims, and not just about peripheral matters. So, as a matter of logic, not all religions can be equally true. I think that it might be more accurate to say that, on Hick’s view, none of the claims of the various religions are literally true, or at least true in such a way as to actually contradict one another. This, however, leads to the familiar problem of whether one can say anything positive about “the Real” (as Hick refers to ultimate reality). Even symbolic or metaphorical truth is only true if it bears some appropriate relationship to that which it symbolizes.

Soft pluralism: Not all religious paths are true (or equally true), but because we lack the kind of interpersonally available evidence that would convince any rational person that a particular religion is true (or more true than all the others), people of various faiths may all be justified in their different beliefs even if not all of those beliefs are (or can be) simultaneously true. Ward also calls this “epistemic pluralism” since it rejects the pluralism of truth, but accepts the pluralism of justification. Going further, Ward says that this soft (epistemic) pluralism, rather than being regrettable, may actually be a positive good. This is because it respects freedom of conscience (everyone should be free to make up their own mind about religious matters) and the fact that no one can claim a monopoly on truth, particularly when it comes to grasping the ineffable nature of the divine. (These are similar to some of the considerations J. S. Mill brings to bear in his argument for freedom of thought more generally in On Liberty.) Christian thought and experience can be enriched by the symbols and insights of other traditions because the infinity of God implies that there is more truth than what we see in Jesus, even if Jesus is (we think) the clearest embodiment of God’s Wisdom.

While some Christians continue to be exclusivists–i.e., they hold that salvation and eternal life are only possible by a conscious relationship to Christianity (whether that is defined as belonging to a particular church or making some conscious act of explicit faith), Ward notes that the mainstream Christian tradition (including Catholicism) has moved toward some version of inclusive pluralism and that further considerations nudge us toward soft (epistemic) pluralism. (Soft pluralism actually seems to me to be compatible with inclusive pluralism; it doesn’t require Christians to give up the belief that Jesus is the fullest revelation of God’s Wisdom or that people outside the bounds of Christianity participate in that Wisdom.) The implications for mission, Ward says, are that Christians should focus on serving the well-being of others and witnessing to the love of God in Jesus, rather than worrying about getting everyone to convert to Christianity.

I think Ward’s typology is helpful, and I think his considerations for affirming a modest epistemic pluralism are strong ones. Whether one could (or should) go beyond that to a “harder” form of pluralism is, I think, an open question. The move to hard pluralism always seems to risk metaphysical relativism or complete apophatic reticence in saying anything at all about God/ the Sacred. Interestingly, the practical implications Ward draws in terms of mission and dialogue are very similar to Suchocki’s, even though the latter seems to be a more thorough-going pluralist.

UPDATE: See here and here for older posts making some similar points. I’m starting to wonder if I ever say anything I haven’t already said before.

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2 thoughts on “From inclusivism to (soft) pluralism?

  1. This is an interesting post, and I definitely agree with the conclusion (i.e. “that Christians should focus on serving the well-being of others and witnessing to the love of God in Jesus, rather than worrying about getting everyone to convert to Christianity”).

    It seems to me, however, that all three of these models (and definitely exclusivism as well) are heavily based on a modernist view of truth. I guess the Hick-school would like to think they’ve moved past that, but I don’t think they really have. Claiming that we have no way to evaluate truth doesn’t change the fact that it’s still a hard, concrete truth we’re talking about.

    Have you read George Lindbeck’s “The Nature of Doctrine”? I think it’s a brilliant approach to the whole question. It looks a bit like the “inclusive pluralism” you describe, which is probably no coincidence since that inclusive pluralism is essentially the doctrine of Vatican II and Lindbeck was closely associated with Vatican II. But I think Lindbeck pushes beyond the inclusive pluralism position. As I read him, he’s saying that even though two groups may have doctrines which are contradictory, this doesn’t necessarily mean one is wrong. The key is that each is contradictory within the liguistic framework of the other, but invariably these linguistic frameworks are entirely different — like polar and cartesian coordinate systems in geometry. This does, of course, mean that the “truth” in either system is a level removed from the “Truth” they are seeking to describe, but this is just a reality of the nature of language and the human mind. It’s also a fact that has been recognized by Christians since the fourth century, at least, and is commonly recognized in other traditions as well.

    Perhaps this sounds like relativism to some modernists, but I am convinced that is a gross misunderstanding.

  2. Hi Andy,

    I have read Lindbeck and I agree that he has some good things to say. I must admit, though, that I don’t think I’ve ever seen a satisfying account of how the cultural-lingustic systems are supposed to relate to the reality outside of such systems. In other words, whatever we might want to say about the “grammar” of these frameworks, they also purport to refer to or describe an independently existing reality. Lindbeck and those who follow him come close (or so it seems to me) to embracing a kind of linguistic idealism.

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