Revenge of the “Enlightened”:
The Exclusive Nature of Religious Pluralism
by Bill Honsberger
Few things are more volatile than religious issues. There is hardly anything that can inflame people more than the types of questions and answers that surround discussions of faith and ultimate concern. In light of this fact many people in academia and in the religious world have turned to Religious Pluralism as a reasoned and measured response to the problem of conflicting truth claims. Religious Pluralism has many forms and this paper will take a cursory look at several and then survey the viewpoints of John Hick, Joseph Campbell and Huston Smith. The paper will explain and define Religious Pluralism and give the motivations of those involved. The paper will then show the inconsistent and hypocritical tenets and practices of Religious Pluralism proponents, with Christianity as the one “safe” prejudice. The conclusion will then respond in an indirect way to the arguments of Religious Pluralism, and present an argument for the real value of studying religious issues.
“Why are hard-working prosperous religious people – so often intolerant, narrow-minded and boring?” Ashleigh Brilliant – Pot Shots Cartoon 1999.
There are few more divisive issues in the world than the competing truth -claims of religions. Devoted people in different religions may participate in conflict, both verbal and physical. Or at least that is a popular notion that intrigues the academic study of religions and many within the Western world. We are told “at this point in history, developing an attitude at least of tolerance, if not of genuine pluralism, is no longer a luxury for an intellectual and spiritual elite”. (1)
Gordon Kaufman of Harvard University sees this within Christian theologians: “Instead of continuing the traditional attempts to make definitive normative claims about ‘Christian truth’ or ‘the Christian revelation’ many may not see the plurality among religious traditions… of profound human meaning and importance; what seems required now, therefore, rather than polemical pronouncements, is careful and appreciative study, together with an attitude of openness to what can be learned from this great diversity…” (2)
One must be open. An “openness” towards divergent points of view is the only way to protect the “other”, the obscured viewpoint of oppressed peoples, whether women or people of color or of minority religions. According to Peter Harrison of Bond University “the discourse of religious pluralism in the 20th century is a legacy of the 19th century creation and discovery of religion within a context of colonialism and imperialism”. (3)
In this political sense then, pluralism has become a necessity driven by western imperialism and religious imperialism personified by Christian missionary efforts most notable in the 19th century. For others like John Hick, Religious pluralism is driven by “our modern awareness of religious plurality and conceptual relativity”. (4)
You might get the sense from him that the mere plurality of religions present in our increasingly smaller world demands a new solution for the west, in particular, Christianity. Conceptual relativity shows up in many frameworks, but the essence of this comment is that a new humility is present in academia, and that certainty of knowledge is an anachronism of the hubris of the Western traditions, in particular the enlightenment and triumphant Christianity. We cannot now claim to know anything in its real self, only our perception of the thing perceived. Lay people chime in as well. In a recent letter to the editor of the Los Angeles Times, Edward Tabash states:
“It was refreshing to see your article on the religious relativism of Abdul Kareem Surash in which this Iranian theologian is quoted as saying that all religious tolerance and pluralism is needed in Iran. In the United States, people like Pat Robertson, Pat Buchanan, and Jerry Falwell need to comprehend that they do not possess a monopoly in understanding God’s will. Additionally, of course, it would be a great day for the world if the Pope would also adopt Surash’s admonition to abandon religious absolutism.” (5)
Many people see Religious Pluralism as a philosophical and theological system arising from the dramatically shifting reality of religious, ethnic, immigrant plurality in the formerly Judeo-Christian west. Harvard scholar of Religion and director of the Pluralism Project, Diane Eck points this out in verifiable ways. She notes that:
“In May of 1990 in a suburb of Boston not far from the starting point of the Boston marathon, the Hindu community of New England dedicated a temple to the goddess Lakshmi, pouring the consecrated waters of the Ganges over the temple towers, along with the waters of the Colorado, the Mississippi and the Ohio rivers. In April of 1993 in Sharon, the Islamic community of New England broke ground for a major new Islamic center to provide an anchor for the nearly 20 mosques in the Islamic Council of New England. These events are increasingly typical of the religious life of New England. Indeed, the religious landscape of much of America is changing – slowly, but in dramatic ways that test the pluralist foundations of American public life. (6)
She also cites statistics, which show that Los Angeles now is home to more types of Buddhists than anywhere else in the world. There are more Muslims than Methodists in England. In the light of all this plurality, and perhaps more importantly in light of the potential and historically based problems that religion have when in relation with each other, (“Fault lines” as described by Samuel P. Huntington) (7) a peaceful and open view of religious pluralism is necessary.
Harold Netland points out that “Canon Max Warren said prophetically in 1958 that as serious as the impact of agnostic science was on theology, it would turn out to appear as mere child’s play when compared to the challenge that other religions would eventually make on Christian theology.” (8)
And I would add not only on Christian theology but also perhaps on the Western world at large. “My son, always respect and honor the other fellow’s point of view. Unless it’s different from yours, of course”. Hagar comic strip. 1999
What exactly is Religious Pluralism? For Huston Smith it is a poetic image. “What a strange fellowship this is, the God-seekers in every land, lifting their voices in the most disparated ways imaginable to the God of all life. How does it sound from above? Like bedlam, or do the strains blend in strange, ethereal harmony? Does one faith carry the lead, or do the parts share in counterpoint and antiphony where not in full-throated chorus”. (9)
For some it is tolerance among competitors. For example Ted Turner states there “was one God and multiple ways he manifests himself and that it makes little difference which one is right’. (10)
Others realized that something much more profound is necessary. Audrey Thompson of the University of Utah, quoting Ann Diller, states, “In ‘Pluralisms for Education,’ Ann Diller argues that neither a laissez-faire nor a cooperative conception of pluralism is adequate to ‘the relational tasks of human communities.’ Models of pluralism, if they are to lend themselves to the building of communities, must ask more of us than simply getting along with one another. Pluralism has to plan actively attending to others, appreciating their distinctive perspectives, not just letting them be different”. (11)
Thompson goes on to argue that pluralism is by definition non- coercive. But she wants more than a simple acceptance of the status quo by all possible groups. She wants a “radical” pluralism which “which valorizes difference, plays with difference and acknowledges diverse groups…”(12)
Under the heading of “Education as Transformation” Victor Kazanjian argues that “both scholarship and spirituality are essential to fostering global learning communities and responsible global citizens who can address the challenges of a diverse world.” (13)
In the same website, Diane Eck defines pluralism as “an encounter of all our differences. It is a reconstruction and renegotiation of our common life in light of that encounter. Pluralism requires something of us…” (14)
Even stronger is the statement of Susan Laemmie, Rabbi and Dean of Religious Life at the University of Southern California. She emotes “We need a change whereby our colleges and universities become at one and the same time, through our cooperative vision, first welcoming of spiritual perspectives, second – supportive of particular religious expressions and third – exemplary of the way in which all spiritual paths are finally leading to the same sacred ground”. (15)
At the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago, Illinois 1993, the challenge was for all religions to accept the truth of the “perennial philosophy…(which) calls for experiencing religion at the essential level”. Rita Gross concurs:
“This genuine and very real pluralism of religious worldviews and value systems does not cause psychological stress or distress. Rather, there is deep and thoroughgoing appreciation of the different systems; their infinite variety becomes a source of fascination and enrichment rather than a problem. Finally without trying to create a single religious system out of the plurality of world religions, it becomes possible to be inspired by other religions, to the point that one welcomes and fosters mutual transformation, taking on aspects of other religions that are lacking or weak in one’s own”. (17)
Now from these myriad expressions of Religious pluralism, as well as from dozens of other similar statements that I collected, you can see several commonalities. Religious Pluralism supposedly promotes tolerance, which at one point could have been described by noting that two people actually disagree and that they would do so in a respectful manner. In actuality, the Religious Pluralists whom we encountered dramatically quashed that point of view.
Most felt that toleration has working model of the world and as such was proven a failure. Another constant was the idea that tolerance was a mere starting point leading to full acceptance and as Gross says, a type of syncretism which benefits each religion equally. In this “tossed salad” every religion/world view would be a distinct element, but part of a larger whole. Notice that at this level of definition, it is stated early and often that each religion is to be accepted, praised, and valued. This sets the state for some comments I will make later on.
Three noteworthy thinkers have proffered their own views of what Religious Pluralism is and ought to be. Philosopher John Hick, Arch-mythologist Joseph Campbell and Religious scholar Huston Smith are all well respected in their fields and their books headline the field of Religious Pluralism. I will expound the views of all three and briefly evaluate them..
Philosopher John Hick states his view “perhaps the fact of religious diversity should not be seen as a challenge to the rationality of forming religious beliefs on the basis of religious experience, but to the assumption that all authentic religious experience must be the same kind and produce the same sets of beliefs.” (18) This quote gives the Hickian perspective in a nutshell. As a self-described orthodox conservative Christian, Hick encountered good, decent, “saints” within other religions, Hick believed that he was forced to rethink his own religious paradigm to envision a belief system that could and would incorporate the religious experiences of non-Christians into a salvific experience. He comments:
“it is rational to base our beliefs upon our experience, including religious experience, which leads inevitably to the problems of religious pluralism; and that there are resources within the major world traditions themselves that can, when supported by important philosophical distinctions, point to a resolution of these problems.” (19)
Using a Kantian distinction between phenomena (the things as perceived in the physical world by humans) and noumena (the actual thing in itself, unknown as to its true essence), Hick argues that at the center of all the axial religions (Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism) is the “Real”, the ultimate essence, the God, the creator, the source of all life or of enlightenment. Since the Real is not in the phenomenological world, then no religion can claim certain knowledge of who or what the Real is. Each religion is bound by cultural forms and structures and therefore the Real must be experienced within each of the different religions. This experience is not just any alleged experience, but rather an experience which produces certain types of behavior.
These behaviors can be instantiated in people’s lives who become more loving, humble, patient, etc. If the net result of the experience produces this type of “soul”, Hick argues that these kinds of experience cut through the cultural structures to reveal the essence of all faiths. Thus Hick argues that his view is not Exclusivistic for religion, nor is it syncrestic in that no religions mixes with any other in the phenomenological world. Seeing himself in the same vein as Mircea Eliade and Wilfred Cantwell Smith, Hick is driven by the justice of his cause. He argues that “In so far as such a resolution proves acceptable within the different traditions, it provides a basis for the mutual respect that is necessary for fruitful inter-faith dialogue and for practical collaboration in face of the common threats – of nuclear destruction, of North-South and East-West confrontations, of irreparable damage to the environment – that face the human family on this small and fragile planet.” (20)
Now while this paper is not a direct attack on the substance of differing Religious Pluralism arguments, I do want to give a few passing comments. Critics point out some major problems with Hick’s thesis. All of the axial religions truly believe that their view is right and true and not merely a cultural phenomenon.
Also many note that Hick’s position in some obvious way presumes some arguments that very much fit the Advaita Vedanta school of Hindu thought. This explains perhaps why Hick’s view is popular among scholars and lay people who are already involved with eastern/New age thought. I have met no orthodox Muslims or orthodox Jews or orthodox Christians who will accept his paradigm.
One last brief critique that I would add is that if Hick’s use of Kantian epistemology is accurate in describing the proper relation between the Real and the world’s religions, then many serious problems arise. If the Real has not communicated to us and we are incapable of seeing the Real in itself, then how do we know that we should live the life of saints? How do we know that any of our experiences are anything but individual experiences which might be explained in various ways without positing the unverifiable existence of an alleged real? In fact if the Real is in the noumenal realm and beyond our ken, then maybe we should kill our neighbor in an Islamic Jihad instead of loving our neighbor. Who is to say? Jeff Dahmer or Mother Theresa – eat the neighbor or love the neighbor – both have the same epistemic grounding assuming Hick’s epistemology. This however must be dealt with responsibly in a different project.
Joseph Campbell is best known for two of his books; The Power of Myth and The Hero of a Thousand Faces,. He has been a major influence on George Lucas and other new age luminaries. Describing Campbell’s view, Bill Moyers notes that:
“He found in the literature of faith those principles common to the human spirit. But they had to be liberated from tribal lien, or the religions of the world would remain – as in the Middle East and Northern Ireland today — the source of disdain and aggression. The images of God are many, he said, calling them ‘the masks of eternity’ that both cover and reveal ‘the Face of Glory’, He wanted to know what it means that God assumes such different masks in different cultures, yet how it is that comparable stories can be found in these divergent traditions…He liked the insight of the Hindu scripture: ‘Truth is one; the sages call it by many names.’ All our names and images for God are masks, he said, signifying the ultimate reality that by definition transcends language and art…(21)
In this statement we see his method of Religious Pluralism, that is, he looks behind the cultural mask to see the “ultimate reality”. We also see his motive in that faith must be liberated from “tribal lien” or customs and dogma, which he sees as the source of wars. I think another story about Campbell that Moyers tells is also interesting. “In Japan for an international conference on religion, Campbell overheard another American delegate, a social philosopher from New York, say to a Shinto Priest, ‘We’ve been now to a good many ceremonies and have seen quite a few of your shrines. But I don’t get your ideology. I don’t get your theology.’ The Japanese paused as though in deep thought and then slowly shook his head. ‘I think we don’t have ideology,’ he said. ‘We don’t have theology. We dance.’ And so did Joseph Campbell – to the music of the spheres.” (22)
In relating his theory about religion, Campbell argues that myths are energies in conflict with each other. Each culture has a mythic Christ or Messiah who is here to teach the perennial philosophy to each culture at different times.
This perennial philosophy can be summed up as the divine in all things, persons and places. The distinction here between Hick and Campbell is pronounced. While Hick’s borrowing of Advaita Vedantic principles is under the surface as it were, Campbell openly praises the eastern, mystical, and Native American religions and others which embrace the perennial philosophy in some way or fashion. Campbell also makes another move which is similar in some ways and distinct in others from Hick. He argues that God can’t be known in a cognitive sense. “I mean that whatever is ultimate is beyond the categories of being and nonbeing. Is it or is it not? As the Buddha is reported to have said: ‘it both is and is not; neither is, nor is not.’ God as the ultimate mystery of being is beyond thinking.” (23). So in this sense both views become immune from intellectual critique, as they are posited in a “safe” place. Much like Vedantic scholar Sankara, once cognition is abandoned mystical experience must be exalted as a new way of “knowing”, meditation instead of “mentation”. Why the mystical leap? In the earlier quote Campbell stated that groups which cling to their own particular myth, instead of “seeing” past the myth to the perennial philosophy, are the cause of war, etc, etc. Our failure to get along is our lack of enlightenment as to the true nature of things. While appears quite often in New Age literature, it is found in Vedic or Sanskrit literature dating back thousands of years. Hence the name “perennial philosophy”. Campbell believed that if the groups would only see the oneness of all things and the divinity of all things, then the world would be “saved”. Campbell describes this monistic pantheism in this way :
“We spoke of the metaphysical experience in which you realize that you and the other are one. Ethics is a way of teaching you how to live as though you were one with the other. You don’t have to have the experience because the doctrine of the religion gives you molds of actions that imply a compassionate relationship with the other. It offers an incentive for doing this by teaching you that simply acting in your own self-interest is sin. That is identification with your body.
(Moyers) Love thy neighbor as thyself because the neighbor is thyself.
(Campbell) That is what you have learned when you have done so.” (24)
This solipsism of the other into the self is distinct from Hick in that Campbell is describing a practical and ethical pluralism based on an ontological reality. The Religious Pluralism principle is then an ethical and practical way of working out the true nature of the universe.
A few passing comments are in order here. Like Hick, Campbell posits a religious experience which is by definition unverifiable and is often ineffable. How does one unverifiable experience have any more weight than another? One person says she “saw” the divine and “knew” that she was to love everyone and another person “saw” the divine and “knew” that he should kill all “bad” women! If experience and autonomy are the only standards, then how can Campbell say that war is wrong, or any other alleged evil in the world? Time honored proponents of the “perennial philosophy” such as Sankara knew that the only way to posit a non- dualistic reality is to claim that this world and all its experiences are Maya – the dream, the illusion. Krishna clearly teaches this in the Gita. Good and evil, war and peace, and all other experiences are nothing but an illusion and do not incite to remedy them, but rather to learn their true nature and ignore them. (25) The third prominent writer is Huston Smith, considered by many the pre-eminent comparative scholar on world religions. Smith is an interesting study in himself as he practices many rituals and practices from numerous world religions. In one sense one can say that he literally practices what he preaches. He states that:
“When, then, a lone spirit of success in breaking through to major conquests here, it becomes more than a king or queen. It becomes a world redeemer. Its impact stretches for millennia, blessing the tangled course of history for centuries. ‘Who are…the greatest benefactors of the living generation of mankind?’ Toynbee asked. ‘I should say: ‘Confucius and Laotze, the Buddha, the Prophets of Israel and Judah, Zoraster, Jesus, Mohammed and Socrates’” (26)
Smith is passionately motivated to see this viewpoint enacted. He preaches, “But if we take those religions seriously, we need not fail miserably. And to take them seriously we need do only two things. First, we need to see their adherents as men and women who faced problems much like our own. And second, we must rid our minds of all preconceptions that could dull our sensitivity or alertness to fresh insights.
If we lay aside our preconceptions about these religions, seeing each as forged by people who were struggling to see something that would give help and meaning to their lives; and if we then try without prejudice to see ourselves what they saw – if we do these things, the veil that separates us from them can turn to gauze.” (27) He goes go to argue that science has armed the human race, and that the “flames of fear, suspicion, and prejudice” are a threat to our very existence. His is a cry for a common humanity, not based on a singular reality, qua Campbell, but rather on a common necessity. The world is a dangerous place and only love can fix it. Jesus told us the Golden Rule and so did the Buddha. Therefore we must echo their statements so that the world will survive. Smith takes a very pragmatic view on the world religions. Rituals and rites then are the particular language of a given culture and therefore by definition are culturally bound. The loving view is to see the common teaching of all the great religious teachers, and strive for that commonality.
While I find Smith’s passion impressive and understand the motivation, there again are several problems which can only be mentioned here. The most basic problem is that only by omission can Smith try and make a case that the religions share these wonderful common themes. The opposite case is much easier to make. For example, Islam believes that Hinduism (and Christianity for that matter) systematically commits the greatest blasphemy possible -shirk—the ascribing of divinity to any created thing. Idol worship by definition is an affront to Allah and must be eradicated. Hinduism, and this is in danger of being a gross simplification, believes that bhakti, or devotion to the god/goddess through dedication to the representative idol, is the greatest marga or path that one can take. Here are two of the world’s greatest religions historically and numerically and yet they agree on virtually nothing. And historically they have fought for over a thousand years. To steal a quip, if only these Hindus and Muslims would act like proper Christians! But that is the point – they are what they are. And Smith admits early in his work that he deliberately avoids all the things in the different world religions that he knows are provocative and destructive. Is this really a fair way to treat any world religion, by creating a sanitized version and then pronouncing it homogenous and good. More on this will be raised later.
In all three views some common themes are persistent; the world is in trouble and so we must postulate a common religion/ethic/practice in order to save it. At the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago, Robert Muller, former asst. secretary General of the United Nations and self-described Ambassador for World Peace, addressed the opening gathering with three general themes. The first is that we are all one. The second is that we are all God. And the third is that we have to do something about those “fundamentalists”. (28) Each pointed theme was given a thunderous ovation. The interesting observation is that even the definition of toleration has changed and this comes out as well. The old fashioned notion of tolerance was some version of acknowledgement that we have different points of view, but that we can deal respectfully with each other. The new version is that we must go beyond that mere ‘tolerance” to something much better – true Religious Pluralism. The twist is more than semantics. It involves a mindset that, like Muller above, is actually the birth of a new exclusivism and therein lies the motivation for this project. The great irony is that it is often the loudest, most vociferous voices crying for pluralism, that are the most strident in their language toward anyone, especially Christians, that would disagree with them.
Several illustrations will point this out. In an article entitled “Religious Diversity: Some implications for monotheism” the Buddhist and Feminist author Rita Gross, argues that “Claims for a unique and universal truth, frequent among monotheists, can become quite specific and overwhelmingly exclusive, excluding everyone even slightly different from ‘us’ from felicity and long-term well-being. Such religious ethnocentrism truly parallels racial, ethnic, class, and gender chauvinisms and is, unfortunately, frequently combined with them by those who dislike diversity.” (29) The basic theme of her argument is that since monotheistic claims tend to be exclusive, then by definition monotheists are ethnocentric and chauvinistic.
On a website entitled Religioustolerance.org, they talk about freedom of religion for all believers, provided they stay within “reasonable limits”. In their summation on this site they spell this out. Number one on the list is that “criticism of religious beliefs is not acceptable”. Does this mean that evangelism is not allowed in any direction because by definition involves sharing contrary ideas? To state that the world is round is by definition an affront to those who believe it is flat. In the Global Ethic document, written by Catholic theologian Hans Kung and presented to the Parliament of World Religions, Kung makes the following statement; “Of course, religions are credible only when they eliminate those conflicts which spring from the religions themselves, dismantling mutual arrogance, mistrust, prejudice, and even hostile images, and thus demonstrate respect for the traditions, holy places, feasts, and rituals of people who behave differently.” (30) Ted Turner, owner of CNN, recently spoke before the United Nations and shared his “conversion” story from Christianity to a more “open” view. He said it was the exclusive claim of Christianity that chased him out. He goes on to argue that all ways to God are legitimate and it doesn’t matter which one you take. But this is the same man who said a few years ago that Christianity was a religion for “losers”.
In a message last year from a local Methodist pastor, he praised the openness of the liberal church, the tolerance that he thought should be the earmark of “real” Christianity. But in describing the evangelical that he was arguing with, the language is stunning. His foil was “narrow”, “infantile”, “immature”, “deluded”, “unimaginative”, “pabulum”, “judgmental”, “self-righteous bigots”, “backward”, “mean-spirited”, “hands covered with blood”, “repressive”, and all in five pages! (31) I know I could “feel the love” and his acceptance. This is seemingly the only safe prejudice left. Orthodox Christianity, “fundamentalism”, or the “religious right” apparently is the only path that does not make it to the crest of the hill. The Christian faith is the only spoke on the wheel that does not make it to the hub. It is the only part of the elephant which in fact is not a part of the elephant. In numerous articles and letters that I have, Christians are hateful, fascists, Nazis, responsible for burning of black churches, responsible for O.J. Simpson’s murder of his wife, the Holocaust and as best I can tell the Alamo, the sinking of the Titanic, and fall of the Roman Empire!. The interesting thing is that these accusations are hurled by those who proclaim themselves tolerant, open-minded, and Religious Pluralists!
A website run by the Interfaith Alliance, describes itself as a “non-partisan, faith-based organization with supporters from over 50 faith traditions, including Muslims, Catholics, Protestants, and Jews. We are dedicated to promoting the positive role of religion as a healing and constructive force in politics and in public life…The Interfaith Alliance organizes people of faith to promote shared religious values: compassion, civility, and mutual respect for diversity and human dignity.” (32) In the same page the Alliance states that they “challenge those who manipulate religion and promote an extreme political agenda based on a false gospel…” (33) The Religious right has a whole page, with highlighted sections for Religious Political Extremists, including the Christian Coalition, the Eagle Forum, Focus on the Family, and all of the rest of the usual suspects. The Alliance intones that “Any movement that seeks ’one true faith’ as a national panacea to the complex problems facing society undermines the integrity of our democracy and threatens principles inherent to the strength of our nation…”(34) The irony of the page is stunning.
Another example of the same mind set can be found on the page from a group called The Blue Mountain Working Group. Their message entitled “A Call to Defend Democracy and Pluralism” has entire paragraphs with lists of synonyms, none too kind, of the religious right. They summarize them by calling the religious right the “anti-democratic right”. We are told that the religious right are “troubled” by critical thinking, cultural diversity and dissent.. They are moralistic, self-righteous and sanctimonious. They demagogue and demonize. They are fascists and racists. In one rather poignant paragraph they state: “We share a sense of urgency. Time is of the essence. We must stop the hard right anti-democratic backlash movement before it inflicts more damage on our society. In defending democracy and pluralism we must refrain from using the same polarizing techniques of scapegoating, demonization, and demagoguery that have been so successful for the anti-democratic right.” (35) The hypocrisy is evident even in the same paragraph, let alone the rest of the article. There is much more but the inconsistency is dramatic. Everyone is accepted and welcomed as allies, except for those on the other side of the political and religious fence.
One Canadian Bishop righteously intones that the Christian church must change its tune. “The problem with exclusivism is that it presents us with a god from whom we need to be delivered, rather than the living God who is the hope of the world,” writes Ingham. “The exclusivist god is narrow, rigid and blind…Such a god is not worthy of honor, glory, worship or praise.” (36)
I could repeat examples ad infinitum, but I think the point is clear. Pluralists seem to have this nasty tendency to attack exclusivism, in particular orthodox Christians. Exclusivists by definition see themselves as being involved in the true religion or faith. Other religions then, again by definition are seen as false. To the proponents of Religious Pluralism this is anathema. This presents the Religious Pluralist with a logical dilemma. The Pluralist asserts that all religions are “right” in some sense. The exclusivist, be they Muslim, Christian, Theraveda Buddhist or any other group, asserts that their group alone is right. The Pluralist must then deny the religious claim of a particular group in order to maintain their pluralism. So they in affect must deny their basic premise to assert their basic premise!
Two personal examples will show the point. In attempting to evangelize people in the New Age, I have been screamed at, cussed at, spit at, had spells cast at me, etc. all by the most tolerant, open-minded people in the world. Just ask them. In the quest for tolerance I have been asked not to ask questions, not to attend meetings and been followed by a security guard at a Psychic Fair. Signs were put up anticipating my involvement in these types of events, threatening to throw anyone out who tried to “proselytize”. So much for open-mindedness. Another time I was on a radio interview discussing Wicca, the religion of witchcraft. After talking about Wicca and what I believe are its serious problems, a witch called the show and proceeded to attack the host and myself for being narrow minded, bigoted, intolerant, mean spirited, and so on and so on. The host of the show tried to calm the caller down and said, “Let me get this straight. You believe that all religions are right, that each person can choose to believe whatever they want and that no one has the right to criticize anyone else’s beliefs” He was ecstatic. “Yes that is exactly what I believe”. The host went on. “O.K. I believe that Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation and that all other religions are the work of the Devil and will lead people to hell. Am I wrong?” There was silence for a moment, in which you could almost imagine the caller biting his tongue not to respond in the affirmative. “You’re arrogant!” he yelled. “That is not what I asked you. Am I wrong? The caller hung up. The only way he could respond in the manner he truly believed would force him to contradict his pluralistic platitudes that he has used as an hammer to beat the mean, nasty exclusivists with.
There is no logical response to the problem. To assert pluralism about religion requires one to totalize all other exclusive positions. At least the exclusivists are honest about it, well most of them. The Pluralists want to have it both ways. Exclusivism is wrong but all exclusive religions are still “right”? You can see why Hick and Campbell and Smith have to turn to a non-cognitive mystical approach to make sense of their systems. But in all these cases the cure is worse than the disease and in fact in some ways does the same kind of arrogant posturing of which the open exclusivists are accused. To resort to non-cognition undermines even the passionate, cognitive argument for pluralism. To posit Maya, as the screen for the true underlying reality, has the net effect of denying ethics en toto, historically and theoretically. To point everyone to an alleged “Real” which does not communicate with creation and even if the Real did, then one can only assume the Real is schizophrenic at best, seems to be no help in any way.
The Reverend Bear intones, “Let us all give praise, for ours is the one true faith:”. A rabbit parishioner responds, “Pardon me, but the very essence of faith is a belief in the existence of something that can’t be proven. So, naturally everyone believes their faith is the ‘right’ one…this means all faiths equally valid, giving no one the right to claim any religious superiority…so let’s just practice our faith in the time honored tradition of religious tolerance.” Reverend Bear ponders the response and then eats the rabbit. In mid chew he spouts “thay – urp – hawayooya!!” Non-Sequitar cartoon. 1998
What then is a possible solution? One of the biggest consequences of Religious Pluralism’s nasty habit of denuding religious beliefs that do not fit within their neat tidy Procrustean bed of liberal democracy, is that the particular religion in itself ceases to exist. It becomes a shadow created for a different agenda by those not participating in the religion. By contrast it seems that the really important questions raised by religions world wide, are the normative claims of truth and the metaphysical claims of reality, and the ethics that are derived from them. Did Mohammed really rise from Jerusalem to slice the Moon with his scimitar? Did the Buddha really encounter an evil demon who attempted to stop Gautama in his quest for enlightenment? Did Jesus really rise from the dead? These are examples of the normative approach to the study of world religions. The fact that there are contrasting claims are part of what makes the study of religion so critically important. The mere fact that there are many potential answers to the question “2 + 2 =? , does not logically follow to the conclusion that all answers must be right!
The metaphysical claims of life after death, the existence of a personal creator versus an impersonal force, meaning in life, etc, are also critical. What if one of the exclusivist claims is correct? What if Heaven or Hell does depend on choices made in this life? Pascal wrestled with this question and deemed it “The question people must wrestle with.” Whether one agrees with Pascal or not, isn’t the question worthy of serious discussion and thought? Pluralism denies the need for even a cursory look, other than to condescend to observe the exclusivist in their native mean spirited state.
The ethical claims also are more than critical. As mentioned before, the price tag of Maya is ethical suicide. That all three of the best-known proponents of Religious Pluralism must posit Maya in some sense in order to make their theory
work and since it is motivated as a result of ethical dilemmas, it commits intellectual suicide. Many university professors can tell stories of students who are so thoroughly relativistic and pluralistic in all areas, that they feel that criticizing Hitler and the Nazi’s is worse than the actual Holocaust itself! The only “sin” in a pluralist ethic is intolerance. Tolerance is not the cure, but the acceptance and affirmation of all beliefs, no matter how repulsive or immoral by formerly universal standards, and so must be “decreed” into existence.
It is also interesting to note that the birthplace of Western Religious Pluralism is Liberal Christianity or its synonyms. There is a doctrinal issue at stake here. As William Lane Craig points out “Universalism is thus the raison d’etre for the response of openness to religious diversity thought to be required by post-modernist thinkers. Total openness and religious relativism spring from an abhorrence of Christian particularism.” (37) This Exclusivistic claim is the most hated one in the literature. I rarely read about Islam’s exclusivity or Theraveda Buddhism’s despisal of Mahayana Buddhism, or even the recent dispute among Tibetan Buddhists denouncing other types of Tibetan Buddhist. This ought to cause one to ponder as to why this is. And as Winfred Corduan points out, once you remove the truth claims there is really no reason for dialogue. So the one absolutely sure object of knowledge is that there is no truth. That thought forces one to deny the laws of logic and to deny reality.
The real interesting questions of religion are ones of passion precisely because they do incite such passions. For all the intellectual joys of a chess match, a soccer game in Europe is much more interesting if for no other reason that it inspires millions of people to act passionately! Surely that kind of passion is worth discussion. None give their lives as martyrs over the preference of Grey Poupon or Mayonnaise. It is precisely the questions that religions raise, and competing truth claims among those religions, that makes the study of religion one of the most important areas of study historically. It is the paradox of the modern academic arena that while universities increasingly have to hire security guards for events, require pledges from students not to cheat, and threaten faculty members to keep them from sexual contact with students, that the study of religion, with all its potential bounty, is given short shrift.
1) Rita M. Gross, “Religious Diversity: Some Implications for Monotheism.” Http://www.crosscurrents.org/gross. Html.
2) Gordon D. Kaufman, “Evidentialism: A Theologians Response,” Faith and Philosophy 6 (1989): 40. My thanks to William Lane Craig for this citation in her article “Politically Incorrect Salvation,” Leadership University.
3) Peter Harrison, Radio National Encounter with Florence Spurling. “Religious Pluralism”, 06-06-99. Http://www.abc.net.au/rn/relig/enc/stories/s28504.html
4) John Hick, An Interpretation of Religion. Yale University Press. New Haven and London.1989. P. 9. For a defense of Hick against some of his critics see Sumner B. Twiss, “The Philosophy of Religious Pluralism: A Critical Appraisal of Hick and His Critics.” The Journal of Religion, Oct 1990. 70: 533-568.
5) Gregory Koukl, “Religious Pluralism”, Stand to Reason Commentary. Http://str.org/free/commentaries/apologetics/comparisons/replural.html.
6) Diane L. Eck. “Challenge of Pluralism”, Nieman Reports “God in the Newsroom” Issue, Vol.XLVII. No. 2, Summer 1993. Http://www.fas.harvard.edu/~pluralsm/html/aricle-cop.html.
7) Samuel P. Huntington. The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. Touchstone Books. New York, NY 1996.
8) Harold A. Netland. Dissonant Voices: Religious Pluralism and the Question of Truth. Grand Rapids: Erdmans, 1991. As reviewed by Roger S. Greenway in Trinity Journal Book Reviews P.226.
9) Huston Smith. The World’s Religions. HarperSanFrancisco. San Francisco, CA 1991. P.2
10) Austin Ruse. “Turner attacks Christianity at U.N. ‘Peace Summit’. August 30. 2000 Http://www.newsmax.com/aricles/?a 00/8/29/192330.
11) Audrey Thompson. “Radicalizing Pluralism”. Philosophy of Education. 1992 Http://www.ed.uiuc.edu/eps/pes-yearbook/92_docs/thompson.html.
12) Ibid – Thompson.
13) Victor H. Kazanjian Jr. ed. “Education as Transformation: Religious Pluralism, Spirituality, and a New Vision for Higher Education in America. Religious Life October 25,2000. Http://www.wellesley.edu/rellife/transformation/resource1.html.
14) Diane Eck. “From Religious Diversity to Religious Pluralism.” Education as Transformation. Religious Life. Http://www.wellesley.edu/rellife/transformation/gathering/8.html.
15) Susan Laemmie. “From Religious Diversity to Religious Pluralism”. Education as Transformation. Religious Life. Http://www.wellesley.edu/rellife/transformation/resource1.html.
16) William Metzger. “Toward a New Spiritual World Order?” The Quest. Winter 1993
17) Ibid – Gross
18) John Hick. “Religious Pluralism and the Rationality of Religious Belief”. Faith and Philosophy 10(2): 247. April 1993. My thanks to Carl Severance for this reference.
19) Ibid – Hick. An Interpretation of Religion. P.xv
20) Ibid – Hick. P. xv
21) Joseph Campbell. The Power of Myth. Doubleday. New York, NY P.xvii
22) Ibid – Campbell. P.xix
23) Ibid – Campbell. P. 62
24) Ibid –Campbell P. 225
25) For an elaborate discussion of this point, see the Bhagavad-Gita As It Is. Commentary by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. Bhaktivedanta Book Trust. Los Angeles, CA. 1994 Especially Arjuna’s dilemma in Chapter 2.
26) Ibid – Smith. P.9
27) Ibid – Smith P. 11
28) Based on meeting I attended at the Parliament.
29) Ibid – Gross
30) Hans Kung. “A Global Ethic”. Handout – 1993 Parliament of the World’s Religions. Chicago, IL
31) Message given by Rev. Charles Schuster. October 1999
32) The Interfaith Alliance Website. Http://www.interfaithalliance.org/aboutus/aboutus.html.
33) Ibid – Interfaith Alliance
34) Ibid – Interfaith Alliance
35) The Blue Mountain Working Group. “A Call to Defend Democracy and Pluralism.” November 1994. Http://www.nwcitizen.com/publicgood/reports/bluemtn.html.
36) Terry Mattingly. “Can today’s church veto the Saints?” Washington Bureau. Scripps Howard News Service. October 8,1998.
37) Ibid – William Lane Craig