The following is a paper I wrote last year for a Philosophy of Religion class. I came back across it the other day while re-arranging files and folders and thought it would make a decent blog posting (at some point I will try to integrate the footnotes into the blog post). Reading back over it I saw some things I think should be worded differently and considered more carefully; however, my basic criticisms of religious pluralism as a realist philosophy of religion still stand. The question of the intersection and conflict of truth claims in religions is a terribly important, and, I think, quite difficult one to deal with, if one is committed to a realist view of truth in religion, and is equally committed to honest appraisals of all religious traditions. As I freely confess in the paper, I do not suppose myself to have arrived at completely satisfactory solutions.


Religious Pluralism Considered

He [a Brahman] enquired why God sent the Shastras if they were not to be observed. I answered how do you know that God sent the Hindu Shastras, did he send the Mussulmen’s Koran also? He answered that God had created both Hindus and Mussulmen, and had given them different Ways of Life. I said then God could neither be wise nor unchangeable to do so, and that all such foolish Worship was unworthy of either God or Men.


There’s an airline plane
Flies to heaven everyday
Past the pearly gates…

Well a lot of people guess
Some say no and some say yes
Will it take some and leave some behind?


1. Introduction: Few questions in either religion or philosophy have so much real-world weight as the question raised by the numerous religious systems of humanity. The nature of religious truth claims is not only a concern for the individual faced with competing religions, but is also an issue for entire nations and peoples faced with conflicts often colored by deeply engrained religious disputes. Religious pluralism, or, more accurately, religious diversity, is brought to the fore most acutely in the direct conflicting interaction of two religions, as in the instance above taken from the journal of the early nineteenth-century Baptist missionary William Carey. It is also an issue in what Basinger refers to as “inter-system” differences within broad theistic systems, such as questions within Christianity over the nature of the ultimate eternal state of humans, a question that finds echo in Woody Guthrie’s “Airline to Heaven.” With the spread of globalism along with the post-Cold War resurgence of religious belief, particularly in the public-sphere, the issue of religious truth claims, exclusivism, and the possibility- or impossibility- of somehow reconciling competing religions remains an absolutely vital one, in terms of both philosophical and practical concern.

In recent years the idea of religious pluralism has arisen as a possible means of reconciling seemingly conflicting traditions, and has been much espoused as a way to integrate religions into a peaceful pluralistic society. Briefly put, religious pluralism, as advocated by John Hick and others, posits an ultimate and ineffable Real that is the focus of all religious traditions. All religions are veridical for the religious believer, offering means of relating to the Absolute in some way. All religions, Hick asserts, are equally competent in turning believers from “ego-centric” lives to “other-centric” lives, centered on the ineffable Real. Pluralism does not deny that there are differences between religions; rather it says these differences and the impossibility of properly reconciling them are proof that they are all partakers of the Real, and the best solution in this life is to take a tolerant agnostic approach to these differences.

But does pluralism in fact offer a cogent and acceptable solution to the very manifest problem of religious diversity? And if it does not, how is one to deal with the issue, while maintaining a realist view of truth and the veridical value of religion? While it is, unsurprisingly, not difficult to find serious problems with religious pluralism, offering an alternative solution is difficult. Therefore this paper will first present significant negative issues with pluralism before offering a (tentative) alternative.

2. Differences Between Religions: One of the principal problems with religious pluralism is that it has a tendency to approach religions from a decidedly generic standpoint: talk of “religions” ultimately replaces talk of Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism, for example, in such a way that the language of those traditions is collapsed into seemingly common terms. For example, St. Gregory of Nyssa and Lao Tzu both speak of ineffability in dealing with “the Absolute”; Christianity and Buddhism both encourage self-renunciation; therefore, they must share certain common referents. Despite ostensibly recognizing differences between religions, religious pluralism ultimately fails to take these differences seriously, in as much as it cannot ultimately affirm both the truth-value of traditions (such as those traditions claim for themselves) and their equal validity in terms of veridicality, without somehow laying claim to a vantage point more exalted in its relaying of ultimate truth than the religions under consideration.

When we examine the claims of a given religion, including both doctrinal propositions and the content of religious experience, we find what are truly serious differences in the basic approach to and understanding the “Real an sich.” Perhaps the most obvious and important would be the difference between conceptions of God- or Brahman, or the Absolute- as personal or non-personal. This is a major division between Eastern and Western philosophy and theology, and it cannot be made to vanish easily. Further yet, some Buddhist traditions deny any sort of Real or Absolute at all, rather describing reality as ultimately Emptiness and Nothingness. And all Buddhist traditions, if they posit an Ultimate of any sort at all, conceive of it radically differently from Western religions, alongside a radically different concept of noncontradiction than underlies all Western theologies and philosophies. It is true that both speak of ineffable reality in some sense. However, in the first place, as Ward notes, if one is presented with an ineffable X and an ineffable Y, one is not therefore obliged to suppose them identical. In fact, by very point of ineffability the question arises as to whether one could say anything at all about the two ineffables, including whether they were two, or one, or more: much less whether they were somehow identical- a very significant quantification indeed!

Further, concepts of ineffability vary greatly. In the Western traditions the ineffability of God does not mean that He is unknowable in an ultimate sense; if that were so theology would be pointless. Rather, the doctrine of God’s ineffability is quite specific in what it delineates. It is quite different from Hick’s conception of ineffability, in which he says of the Real that is unknowable- we cannot ascertain whether it is one or many, personal or non-personal, and so on. But this immediately raises another important question: how then can Hick or anyone else speak of the Real, if it is truly ineffable as he describes? And even supposing his language about it (assuming it to be a monad of some sort, simple or otherwise) is correct, how can he know that different religious traditions are speaking about the same thing if the thing being spoken about cannot be properly spoken of? We might add that pluralism could itself be described as another religious tradition, which therefore, by its own logic, cannot itself claim to absolute and exclusive truth- though surely it must claim that, contra other religious traditions which assert the exclusiveness of their claims to truth and understanding the Real (or whatever their ultimate “referent” is).

In the classic story of the elephant and the blind men often used as an analogy of religious pluralism, the King and his attendants are able to see the entire elephant. However, if all traditions are in fact blind men feeling the elephant, it is impossible for any to say what all are feeling: to do so would presuppose some kind of superior vantage point. Yet such a vantage point is destroyed by pluralism, for it would entail a very specific exclusivist claim to religious knowledge vis-à-vis the Real. Pluralism cannot offer such a vantage point without devalidating its own claims, as it- bravely, it might be added, in contrast with the blasé relativism that is current in much of academia- seeks to uncover some Ultimate Referent within all religions, that has ontological and epistemic reality. But to do so brings in internal contradictions that cripple the arguments from within.

On a similar tack we may examine Hick’s appeal to soteriological experience as a means of identifying a single Referent for all religions: “The great world religions, then, are ways of salvation. Each claims to constitute an effective context within which the transformation of human existence can does take place from self-centeredness to Reality-centeredness.” But again, Hick must contend with a wide variety of “salvation experiences” that, while having some similarities, ultimately have very different ultimate referents and means. Even if we could establish, as Hick argues- and there is workable ground for the argument- that the moral and spiritual “fruit” of various paths to salvation are equally brought about by the different traditions, it would not determine that they are all being wrought by the same Reality. As Ward notes, a-religious movements and processes can produce “salvific” fruits on par with world religions, yet it would a considerable stretch to say that they are tapping into the Divine power of the Real. Considering only religions, it is still highly improbable to suppose that the salvific “referent” of different religions is the same if we take the claims of those religions seriously and do not have access to a superior vantage point outside of those experiences that would allow a somehow unfiltered view of the Real and its relation to religious traditions.

3. Pluralism as Emasculation of Religion: A common charge of pluralists is that non-pluralist forms of religion are vehicles for maladroit intolerance at best, violence and oppression at worst: “Exclusiveness regards universality as the extension of its own particularity and seeks to conquer other faiths. Inclusiveness, though seeming generous, actually co-opts other faiths without their leave. Both exclusiveness and its patronizing cousin inclusiveness may even be forms of theological violence against neighbors of other faiths…”

Certainly, the history of religions gives ample evidence of various forms of violence being enacted against members of dissenting views; to recount them here would hardly be germane. However, while it may, on the surface, appear that pluralism solves for a more open and tolerant faith, it can itself be just as pernicious a vehicle for “theological violence.” This is best demonstrated through an examination of the decidedly exclusivist message of Christ and the Early Church, but can be just as readily extended to the actions of other faiths, particularly in those religions which Ramachandra refers to as “dissenter traditions,” such as Christianity and Buddhism, both of which emerged as counterpoints or protests against the traditions they originally inhered in. Christianity was from its inception a decidedly radical faith, and was able to stand as witness against injustice, including injustice codified by religion. Christianity was not content to proclaim Christ as Lord and God alongside Caesar- the State- as Lord and God; instead, it held forth Christ alone as Lord and God- an explicit and exclusivist claim of orthodoxy- which meant an explicit subversion of the State and its illusions of divine power, along with all its attendant coercion and violence- an expression of orthopraxy flowing directly from orthodoxy.

To offer a contemporary example, Christianity in modern times has often spoken against the caste system that inheres as orthopraxy in that grouping of religions broadly defined as Hinduism. While Buddhism to a certain extent acted as an acute dissenter religion in response to the systematic violence of the caste system, historically it tended to relegate itself to “spiritual” concerns and, while fundamentally questioning the caste system, largely left it intact. However, in recent years both Christianity and Buddhism, acting self-consciously as dissenter religions, have spoken out against the injustices perpetrated against the dalits of India in the name of Hinduism. In so doing they both are declaring that the truth-value of their religious claims is superior by virtue of being a correct judgment on the nature of reality, contra the truth-claims of Hinduism. The committed pluralist, by insisting on the relative value of all religions’ truth claims and refusing to judge between them, must also insist that judgments by Christianity or Buddhism upon the injustices of caste oppression are in fact illegitimate acts of “theological violence.” That the proclamation by Christianity of the injustice of a given religion’s tenets or practices is indeed a form of “theological violence” is perfectly admissible, in light of Christ’s declaration that he was coming with “a sword”: the “violence” of confronting unjust belief systems and directly challenging their validity.

A pluralism which disbars the truth-claims of Christianity (as any pluralism which seeks to establish a supra-religious ontological reality must do) disbars its meaningful contact with people, cultures, and religions outside of it: “Only if the Christian faith is truth does it concern all men; if it is merely a cultural variant of the religious experience of mankind that is locked up in symbols and can never be deciphered, then it has to remain within its own culture and leave others in theirs.” This applies not only to Christianity, it might be noted: strict pluralism must ultimately leave all religions essentially emasculated, their truth claims- which are at root claims about the very nature of the world and man’s place in it- evacuated of their original meaning in favour of the new construction offered by modern theologians and philosophers.

And if truth is denied in a religion- truth meaning the claims of one religion about reality vis-à-vis others- religions are left mere artifices, empty Wittgensteinian language games whose relation to higher ontological reality is only incidental and is not in fact true to the content of the religions themselves. One must then question the ultimate value of religious experience, since its relation to ultimate ontological and epistemic reality is impossible to ascertain beyond very vague generalities, and the vital force of religions in the world is largely removed. Religious pluralism does violence of its own in not taking individual traditions- as noted above- on their very serious terms. While these implications cannot of themselves conclusively condemn pluralism as a theory, they must give us pause, and they do adequately address the charge that exclusivism is somehow inherently a negative force or agent of theological evil (leaving aside the somewhat obvious question of how and why we define “evil”).

4. An Alternative in a Moderated Exclusivism: Religious pluralism is therefore by any means a highly problematic solution to the problem of religious diversity. What then are other tenable solutions? It may be, as suggested by the famous arguments David Hume presents, in Of Miracles that no religions at all are true, the position of the agnostic or atheist. On a similar level one might embrace the arguments of Averroes and consider religious “truth” to be of a different sort than, say, mathematic truth. This would reduce religion to mere taste, in a way similar to Hick’s appeal to a phenomological understanding of religion. At least in Hick’s rendering, there is some, if unclear, relation of religions to the “the Real.” To demarcate religion into its own category of truth unrelated to the world is to essentially deconstruct religions- since all major religions make, whether through explicit orthodoxy or implicitly through orthopraxy, specific claims about the nature of the world. All religions hold, ultimately, to some sort of realist view of truth. Thus an Averroes-like theory would not in fact somehow “preserve” religion and thus solve the issue, but would lead to the same results as flatly denying the validity of all religions.

Outside of denial of any religious validity, some sort of exclusivism is likely in order if one is to suppose any realist truth value to religious experience can be apprehended (it may be that truth is more or less equally mixed through all religions; but how one would go about ascertaining this is highly problematic). A word about the word “exclusivism” is in order first. Any view concerning religions- including, as noted above, religious pluralism, is in some way “exclusivist” if it holds to any sort of realist view of truth and the principle of noncontradiction. However, in terms of religions, it will here mean a religion which views itself as containing either the fullness of truth or at least containing more truth than all other systems; the exclusivist viewing her religion as being the normative one for evaluating all others (the possession of some sort of normative core, even a very “stripped down” one, being ultimately necessary for making any truth claims at all). This may or may not entail judgments on the ultimate eschatological destination of those in other systems; nor must it entail its absolute validity with no truth-value in other systems. Other systems, however, cannot be seen as being ultimately normative.

That exclusivism need not obsesively concern itself with every charge of “religious imperialism” has already been demonstrated; but can the exclusivist justify her exclusivism and its truth-claims when confronted with the reality of other equally exclusivist traditions? Per the views formulated by the so-called school of Reformed Epistemology, an exclusivist can reasonably hold to her views and rationally justify holding them. However, whatever the merits of Reformed Epistemology’s arguments- and they are considerable- ultimately those arguments do not proffer an adequate way of dealing with the issue of truth, and can lead one into the same cultural and philosophical faux passé as religious pluralism and Averoeism, but one in which different religions operate in their own sealed departments. Instead, the exclusivist is obliged at the very least to consider the claims of other religions and examine the basis of his own claims if he is to hold to a realist view of his exclusive claims and meaningfully engage other religions. This examination may well entail, as Quinn suggests, “thinner theologies” that reconsider some propositions and hence reduce conflict between religious systems, without forsaking the exclusivist’s claims. Not only must such a questioning and examination not entail a forsaking of one’s normative beliefs, but it may well lead to a strengthening and revitalization of those beliefs.

It is important to note that exclusivism- say, for our purposes, Christian exclusivism- does not by any means entail denying truth-content and even divine veridicality in other religions. Rather, it may embrace what is sometimes referred to as “inclusivism,” in the sense employed by Cardinal Ratzinger: “The true meaning of what people call ‘inclusivism’ becomes apparent here: it is a matter, not of absorbing other religions externally, on the basis of a dogmatic postulate, as would do violence to them as phenomena, but of an inner correspondence that we may certainly call finality: Christ is moving through history in these forms and figures, as we may express it.” This is distinct from pluralism, which views all religions as equally veridical; the exclusivist may allow for veridicality in other religions, but only in some sort of correspondence with her religion. Such a view, as Ratzinger notes elsewhere, has the advantage of being concerned with religions on an individual basis, and thus avoids the tendency of pluralism to seek overly broad generalizations. This sort of “exclusivist inclusivism” allows for genuine interaction between religions and cultures without leading to the emasculation of religion that pluralism tends towards; the exclusivist, it is true, will be obliged to enter into conflict, not only with the beliefs of others, but even her own. If, however, our desire is to maximize truth, such conflict, when approached with an openness to truth whilst solidly grounded with a definite and internally consistent normative core, can give much greater basis for honestly examining religious traditions and their truth-validity.

But can one determine the absolute validity of one’s religion vis-à-vis other traditions? This is the basic question; it might existentially be phrased for our purpose, “Why remain a Christian- why not embrace Islam or Buddhism?” Adler suggests that investigation of religious truth can operate from the background of previously established truths in the realm of “transcultural” truths, such as in science and mathematics. This approach can certainly lend some aid to establishing the ongoing rationality of one’s exclusivist faith; so could any number of arguments, whether historical, experiential, or otherwise, that might be marshaled, in favour of Christianity versus other systems. However, at the end of all such arguments, it cannot be denied that faith is absolutely necessary, even if perhaps not via the existential starkness of Kierkegaard; there is no absolute middle ground on which equally intelligent and honest people can, without question begging, absolutely “prove” a given religion. This however- in correlation with broader epistemological concerns- need not serve as an absolute defeater for those who hold to an exclusivist position, particularly when the serious problems of religious pluralism are considered (to say nothing, due to the scope of this paper, of the religious agnostic’s problems). Instead, it should, as Baringer urges, lead to further careful consideration of beliefs and refined philosophical reflection. The question of religious diversity is by no means a settled or even particularly well-defined one in contemporary philosophy; considering its importance in the modern world however it is certainly one deserving of greater consideration and development.


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