Monday, July 14, 2003

A Critique of a Holographic Model of Religious Pluralism

More like a book review, actually. Lifted from myself (again), on The book is Stephen Kaplan's excellent Different Paths, Different Summits. Pick up a copy, if you're into that sort of thing.

[review follows; I gave it 4 stars out of 5 on Amazon]

According to Kate McCarthy, there are "convergent" pluralists and "nonconvergent" pluralists. Perhaps the best-known member of the convergent camp is John Hick, whose 1989 An Interpretation of Religion and 1995 followup A Christian Theology of Religions may be the best expressions of convergent pluralism out there.

Thinkers like S. Mark Heim (Salvations: Truth and Difference in Religion) and Stephen Kaplan represent the nonconvergent camp (I've reviewed Heim's Salvations on, so I won't go into it here)-- pluralists uncomfortable with common-essence approaches to the questions of religion, salvation, and ultimate reality.

Kaplan's Different Paths, Different Summits enters the pluralism debate rather late in the game, but it's easily one of the most original philosophical contributions out there.

Like Heim, Kaplan wants to posit a model that allows for multiple salvations. Unlike Heim and Hick (and almost everyone else!), however, Kaplan takes the game further and wants to set these multiple salvations within a framework of multiple ontologies-- a plurality of ultimate realities.

Hick (1995) scoffed at the notion of numerically multiple ultimates, and one has the impression that his position is based on common sense. [NB: Hick's position on "the Real" has been described as Kantian, but it also possesses traits of advaitic nondualism, making his position more subtle than it seems at first blush.] But Kaplan thinks that it is both possible and meaningful to present a model that coherently allows for a plural ontology and soteriology.

To this end, Kaplan relies heavily on the work of David Bohm (Wholeness and the Implicate Order) and the principles of holography to present his "holographic" pluralistic proposal. A lot of space is devoted to explaining some basics about holography in order to make the analogy more intelligible to a nonexpert.

We learn a great deal about the "implicate order" and "explicate order(s)"; we gain some insights about research into the irreducible diversity of mystical experience, as well as the ins and outs of contructivist epistemology. We see the holographic model applied to the "monistic nondualism" of Gaudapada (advaitic Hindu), the "process nondualism" of Vasubandhu (Yogacara Buddhist), and the "dualistic theism" of Richard of St. Victor (Catholic Christian), and we come to understand that these worldviews simply apprehend holographic reality in ways that prioritize certain aspects of it while deemphasizing others.

Kaplan constructs his argument well and deals ably with possible objections to his model. But does he convince?

For me, the answer is no. One grievous problem with Kaplan's model is that it relies on a linguistic gambit: you have to agree that "ultimate," far from meaning "greatest" in an exclusivistic sense, means something more like "last in a series," which harks back to an older meaning of the word. Kaplan contends that this move is necessary because then "ultimate" is understood more pluralistically: different paths take you to different summits. Kaplan doesn't truly address the philosophical issues of ultimacy in its normally understood sense; he neatly avoids them.

But there is another difficulty: while Kaplan's model propounds multiple ontologies and soteriologies, these elements remain subsumed under a single overarching metaphysic (a fact Kaplan admits at several points in the book).

This, to my mind, is no different from the so-called "trap" into which John Hick has supposedly fallen. In fact, every nonconvergent pluralist who propounds a philosophical model inevitably must confess the model's hidden unitive aspect. For Kaplan, it's a numerically single metaphysic that ties the various ontologies together. For someone like Heim, it's a single ontology with multiple soteriologies (cf. Heim's "travel analogy" in Salvations). In the end, people like Heim and Kaplan end up being, if you will, crypto-convergent pluralists. Their models demand that the various religions widen their playing fields to acknowledge previously inadmissible possibilities. And given most religious folks' demeanor, absolutely none of these models will prove acceptable... except perhaps to similarly-minded pluralists (Heim actually anticipates some of this in Salvations).

Despite my feeling that Kaplan's model is unconvincing, his book was a great read, and there's no denying it's one of the few truly innovative philosophical moves in the ongoing discussions about religious pluralism. To that extent, I recommend it highly. Like my copy of Heim's Salvations, my copy of DPDS is full of scrawled marginalia. Yours will be, too.

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