Sunday, July 13, 2003

The Question of Religious Pluralism

Another meditation I've stolen from myself (and edited for your benefit) from Beliefnet, originally from a discussion thread called "God Exists," initiated by a different person. My spiel appeared as a 10-part post over there, so it's pretty damn huge, and might be dense reading for some. Take your time, remember to leave your chair and stretch periodically, get some fresh air, change the baby's diapers, do some t'aegeuk-kwon (Korean for taijiquan), drink some chocolate milk, etc. My essay'll still be here.

Ready? Take a deep breath and plunge on in.

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When we start critically examining the pluralist position adopted by many Christians who, like myself, see more bridges than barriers between the various traditions, the danger of pluralism's oppressiveness becomes apparent.

John Hick, an Anglican with a Presbyterian background, is perhaps the most famous articulator of the threefold exclusivist-inclusivist-pluralist typology (actually propounded by Alan Race in the 1980s). Hick has identified himself as a confirmed pluralist, but people immediately took issue with his theory of pluralism, which he refers to as a "religious view of religion."

Hick suggests that all religions are culturally mediated responses to what he terms, for lack of a better word, "the Real," and he sees these religions as ways of salvation/liberation (his blanket term, not mine), where "salvation/liberation" means a turn "from self-centeredness to Reality-centeredness," a radical reorientation to "a limitlessly better possibility." Religions approach the Real through the modes of "personae" (e.g., monotheisms, theistic Hindu thought) or "impersonae" (mainly nondualistic, nonfolkloric Buddhism and advaitic Hindu thought at its most rarefied). But because we don't all occupy the same space at the same time, it's inevitable that traditions, with their different histories, will develop different modes of thought and expression. Thus saith Hick.

The howls began immediately, and Hick's been taking hits from all sides since at least the 1980s. Some accuse him of crypto-inclusivism, doing what the post-Vatican II Catholics have done by subsuming all traditions under one meta-theoretical or meta-religious umbrella. This, the critics contend, is arrogance at its worst.

Others accuse Hick of being a crypto-exclusivist, because if you don't accept his paradigm, then you're part of a problem, not part of the solution. What's Hick's solution? A pluralist worldview promulgated in all the traditions, where acceptance and open-mindedness become the norm. To blunder on nonpluralistically is to continue in error and propagate suffering.

All of Hick's critics take the stance that Hick's pluralistic metatheory sweeps any meaningful doctrines under the rug. Everything is relegated to "mere detail." But it is, the critics contend, the details that make religious traditions what they are. One thinker, S. Mark Heim, says that Hick's position is basically a lie: he declares himself a pluralist, but in the end, his theory acts like a huge funnel, and all religions have to squeeze through the same hole. That, says Heim, is not pluralism. It's crypto-inclusivistic hypocrisy.

I was warned time and again during my Master's program that my pluralistic stance (as a Christian) is liable to get me in trouble. But here's what I've discovered: in my talks with Korean and Western Buddhists, I tend to get in trouble only with Western converts to Buddhism. The openness I have ascribed in several threads to Master Shin of Hanguk-sa [a Korean Son (Zen) temple in Germantown, MD] is found in other Korean monks as well. I can't grant that this is true of all Korean Son monks, but such has been my experience so far.

Westerners have a more intellectual bent when it comes to Asian spirituality, and the spirituality has accommodated this. I personally feel that Westerners (mainly Americans, since I've met few EuroBuddhists) could do a little more work in this area; they still sound far too evangelical Protestant and far too philosophical in how they discuss their beliefs and practice. They don't recognize the degree to which the surrounding Christian ethos has sunk into them, how it affects their delivery and potentially skews what they're inheriting from Asia. And because many who are converts are still working out past issues about the religion they "escaped" from, this certainly colors how they deal with people of their former faith.

My own sympathies lie with people like our church's pastor: when I asked Rev. Criswell what difference there was between the Church's acting out "the will of Christ" and "the will of the Holy Spirit," he smiled and said, "Same thing." Knowing him as I do, I can tell you this: his concerns are not academic; they are religious. He provided a religious answer, which is that if you're too hung up on terminology (a recurrent issue in religious discussion), you're missing the point. I contrast this with some of the priests at Catholic University who gleefully parsed anything and everything: perichoresis, immanent trinity, economic trinity, blah, blah, blah. (Maybe that's my own unsophisticated Protestantism talking!)

Rev. Criswell's stance, is, to me, in line with Hick's project. Don't obsess over details that don't mean squat. Hick formulated his pluralistic stance for ethical reasons: stupid arguments over concepts and doctrine are usually what cause bitter divisiveness. Buddhism, though its track record doesn't equal Christianity's in terms of death toll, is just as susceptible to narrowminded, bullheaded, mulish exclusivism. Sri Lanka is almost always the example cited in this regard. Chinese history is filled with Buddhist purges of rival religions, as is Korean history. Factional disputes among "enlightened" monks in Japan are legendary.

I am sympathetic to Hick and think he's on the right track. The "all paths leading to one summit" notion doesn't come from him; it's an old, old intuition. I give it credence. But there are aspects of Hick's argument I disagree with. His attempts to address the Real lead him into some very awkward theologizing, and while it's amazing reading, it doesn't work. He tries to apply, for example, Kantian notions of noumenon and phenomenon to explain the relationship between the Real and concepts of the Real. Any sane Zen adherent will reject this. To see with the dharma eye, in the way originally meant, is to see directly into reality. It is, to put it in academic terms, unmediated perception, absolute participation in ultimate reality. Ultimately, it's not "seeing," per se, since that's a dualistic notion implying a seer and the thing seen. Hick's Real fails the Zen test, because he insists the Real lies beyond any such direct seeing.

Hick has a good deal of background in advaitic thinking, and while Kantian noumenon/phenomenon bear some analogous resemblance to nirguna brahman/saguna brahman, they are not quite the same. Plus, advaitic thinking doesn't posit a Brahman that is numerically one, because the number one itself lies in the field of dualism-- one as opposed to two, three, etc. Hick's position has been affected by the controversy around him, and he has tried redressing some of this by asserting the "ineffable" nature of the Real, which points the way toward a more acceptable nondualistic approach (cf. Hick 1995).

But the subtext of Hick's argument, that we need to purge religion of its inherent divisiveness and forge a new, more widely conscious ethic, resonates with me. Hick's message is primarily for Christians, of course, but it could apply equally well to the current Muslim issue, or to shakubuku-style Buddhist polemic.

As things stand, just about every "great" tradition pretends to some kind of universality. Most also include normative elements. Hick's personal battles, apart from the pluralism issue, revolve around stripping Christ of his normativity, because it's Christ's normativity-- "no man cometh before the Father but by me"-- that causes so much suffering on the interreligious level. (Many Buddhists have at some point encountered the "But why can't you just accept that Christ died for your sins, and simply believe?" argument.)

Hick is bravely suggesting that, yes, scriptures and religious ideas that don't fit a wider-looking ethic need to be examined and thrown out, or at least reinterpreted. He is suggesting that we be conscious of each other, respectful of each other, open to change-- something that Thich Nhat Hanh also affirms in his strange but wonderful style of Zen Christianity or Christian Zen.

People aren't ready for this, of course, which is why the critics leaped on Hick. "Don't destroy my [religion's] uniqueness!" is the perennial battle cry. There's a great fear that the widening of one's perspective will lead to the disappearance of one's tradition. As one person said to me:

the backbending and twisting that would have to happen to call these two the same renders one unrecognizable.

As another person said:

That is like saying "All religions are one." And I would say, "How wonderful, but which one?" There certainly have been attempts at this but they are fundamentally failures for the simple reason [that] to work their unifying magic they must redefine everything in particular terms that would not necessarily be agreeable or compelling to those being so redefined. Such attempts tend to be procrustean.

I think the caution is legitimate. But I also am impatient for all of us to move forward and actually embrace deep change. Human beings have two opposing tendencies, one toward order, stability, and homogeneity, another toward chaos, novelty, and variety. So I'm not worried that we're all going to melt into one happy shade of light brown, stultified into global monoculture. The impulse to variety will see to it that we shake things up every now and then. If I may inject a Christian remark at this point, I have faith that pluralism can and will work. It need not imply the destruction or homogenization of all religions.

I acknowledge, though, that pluralistic thinking like Hick's is largely a product of Western liberal academe. It is not widely embraced, by any means. There is more than a faint whiff of theological imperialism in Hick's stance, perhaps because it's a Christian articulating it. This needs to be addressed, and thinkers from exclusivist, inclusivist, and pluralist parts of the spectrum are doing so.

But in Pure Land Buddhism the name of the game is to get everyone motoring toward Sukhavati (and beyond, since Sukhavati isn't nirvana); in Mahayana thought, the bodhisattva is supposed to "save all beings from suffering." These are universalist ideas. That the nature of being is sunyatic, anityic, and dukkhic is indicative of Buddhism's own tendency toward normativity, because if you fail to see reality this way then you're simply delusional, chained to the Wheel. Every religion contains its own imperialism; adherents often cast aside humility and, even if they don't publicly acknowledge this, they think to themselves, "What a pity the other doesn't see the truth." It's what separates the ass from the cattle, the sheep from the goats. Kate McCarthy notes that many sympathetic non-Buddhists view Buddhism as being very open and inclusivistic, but she also notes wryly that "Buddhists don't budge on metaphysics."

One of my former profs contends that "we're all fundamentalist when it comes down to it." Each of us has a stance; each of us has a history and a perspective. Total congruence among perspectives is simply impossible. But my response is: while that's true, there's a human tendency to construe religious truths as universal-- not a bad thing in itself. We also have the ability to reach out and empathize, to be "com-passionate," "suffering-with." While we'll never arrive at a true "fusion of horizons," we can certainly improve on the sorry job we've done so far.

An interesting online exchange I saw, relevant to the above:

A [a Buddhist]: And I don't know why you imply that I've got my nose in the air.

B [also a Buddhist]: Well because you called Christianity toxic. One would have to be stupid to follow it if it were so obviously toxic now wouldn't they? Not like us Buddhists who filter the palatable teachings from the rest. Truthfully I was thinking of anti-Christian Buddhists in general though. I am often astonished at how selectively literal they can be with Christianity and yet so into glossing over certain Buddhist teachings as "skillful means" as if that term makes things different.

My focus is on the phrase "filter the palatable teachings." There's truth in this, for Buddhists and Christians. We pick and choose. We spin and interpret. That's what hermeneutics is all about. But while I sympathize with (B)'s remark, I'd have to say that such picking and choosing can be beneficial when it's a matter of rooting out the junk that inevitably accumulates in great traditions. Agreeing on what's "junk," is, of course, a nettlesome issue, but this shouldn't deter us from the effort. (But I also agree with (B) that Western converts to Buddhism sometimes engage in silly straw-man tactics when attempting to bash Christianity!)

For Christianity, I'd say this "junk" is all over: smugness about one's own rightness; exclusivist scripture and belief; and a still-active missionary impulse, scarily carrying out the injunction "that every knee shall bend and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord"-- a formula for the eventual elimination of all competition. If "saving all beings from suffering" means, narrowly, that everyone needs to come around to adopting specifically Buddhist metaphysics to achieve nirvana, then this is problematic, too.

Which leads me, finally, to what I consider a healthy attitude at least for the moment: mutual inclusivism as a subtype of pluralism.

Inclusivism gets a bad rap. It's the "hidden arrogance" position. Exclusivism is easy to bash because of its "my way or the highway" temperament. But inclusivism pats you on the head and says, "Go ahead and stay Buddhist. Christ is working through your religion, too." This tends to upset non-Christians. Gee, I can't imagine why.

The Roman Church, since its promulgation of the Nostra Aetate document during Vatican II, is officially inclusivist. It recognizes a special, organic relationship with Judaism, which Christians are to view as an elder brother. It recognizes those elements in the Protestant, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist traditions that militate toward "salvation." But salvation is still the Catholic version of it: you're going to Heaven, Buddhagirl, like it or not. That's where your practice is leading, not nirvana. The Roman Church maintains that other traditions can lead to salvation, but they do it through the grace of Jesus Christ, and the Roman Church is the fullest expression of Christ's work on earth.

The down-home expression for "decent folks" in this kind of inclusivism was popularized by the Catholic theologian Karl Rahner, who made the term "anonymous Christian" famous. If you're a Hindu who lives in a Christlike manner, exhibiting all the requisite virtues, then you're an anonymous Christian, even though you may follow the sanatana dharma, and have never heard the gospel.


Rahner was apparently accosted by a Buddhist (Nishitani) about this while in Kyoto. "What if I called you an anonymous Buddhist?" Nishitani is said to have asked. "I'd be honored," Rahner is said to have replied.

Such a reply can't have earned Father Rahner many Catholic friends, but I think it was a religiously and ethically sound reply to make. The philosophical grounding for mutual inclusivism can wait. Ethical action should come first. The loving impulse that allowed Rahner to risk opening himself to Buddhist reinterpretation (and we can't fear being re-understood by the Other) was more urgent and more important than any terminological quibble he could have engaged in with Nishitani. In the meantime, it's a way of subverting the hard-nosed exclusivistic and insidious inclusivistic tendencies found in major traditions: "See things our way or consider yourself deluded"; "Believe these propositions or consider yourself hellbound"; "Accept these pillars or consider yourself dhimmi or infidel."

When I dialogue, I have to risk that my Christianity can dissolve and disappear. It's a living truth, which means it can grow, change, and die. Christianity isn't forever. It arose with people and will die when the human race disappears. The Buddha's truths (even the cosmic ones!) are also, to my mind, contingent and ephemeral. I take seriously Nagarjuna's "emptiness of emptiness." If you can't, as a Buddhist, affirm that even dearly-held philosophical and scriptural truths can fray and fade away, then you don't realize the depths of your own attachment to those truths. I think mutual inclusivism is the first step in a very proper, very religious letting go.

[UPDATE, July 16: It's not obvious, but my spiel really ends at this point. What follows comes from the same ten-part post, but involves responses to some other people in the "God Exists" thread. Just thought I'd clarify. So if you want to know where my "essay" ends, it ends above.]

A person wrote me:

Don't worry about being a skeptic, lots of us here consider that a good thing. But don't miss the power and beauty in the metaphors.

Metaphors are where it's at. I think in terms of symbolic narrative, and I certainly don't view any of the scriptures and epics of any tradition as a journalistic account of some kind of founding moment, or of Creation, or of the end times.

Another person wrote:

The folks who have a different spirituality, but for whatever reasons just can't let go of god-talk really should look harder at both their attachment to the word, and their assumption that the "big picture" aspect of life has to be labled "god." Mainly because it's just confusing. When god is used for so many personal definitions, you wind up needing a god dictionary with entries for each person's definition so that communication can continue. It's tiresome.

Does this imply that core terms in Buddhism are understood the same way by all Buddhists, who suffer no such confusion? I think if that were true, there wouldn't be multiple schools of Buddhism, nor would there be competing schools of scholarly thought about Buddhism. As I said before, even among Christians going to the same church, "God" will be understood in various ways. This isn't good or bad; it's only natural. To associate "their attachment to the word" exclusively with theism is to miss that that same attachment occurs with most core terms in any philosophical or religious tradition. Try interviewing Buddhists, each one for ten or twenty minutes, asking each person how they define core terms like dukkha, anitya, anatman, karma, buddha, or anuttara samyak sambodhi. Use the time to see where they take those definitions. I'm betting you'll discover that understandings range from similar to wildly different, from simplistic to sophisticated. This confusing variety isn't tiresome; it's the spice of life!

OK, maybe I do have a real critique of online Western Buddhists: Beliefnet needs some down-home folkloric Taiwanese Pure Landers-- unreconstructed East Asians without a hint of Western pollution in them. People who're Buddhist because their families have been Buddhist since the time when snaggle-toothed cave men were dragging their knuckles and drawing stick figures. People who see ghosts, hobnob with ancestral spirits, think waaaay superstitiously, factor good/bad luck into everyday living. People who, like the Taiwanese lady who sat in on my lecture about Buddhism at my church, said, "I didn't recognize a single thing you talked about," because, like so many Western Buddhists do when discoursing on Buddhism (and Beliefnet's threads provide plenty of confirmation), I reduced Buddhism to a set of rarefied academic concepts and principles, and to a very narrow set of practices that had nothing to do with how millions of people actually live their Buddhism in the Old Country.

I'm not implying that Western converts (or Western "cradle Buddhists") are somehow fake. I am saying, however, that every time I see a Western Buddhist on these boards lecture about how Buddhism "isn't about X or Y," I keep thinking to myself, "Maybe you should ask the folks back home." Not theistic? Depends. Not dualistic? Also depends. No essences? Routinely contradicted whenever the phrase "real Buddhism" pops up.

A question from david54:

The cultural and personal reification of any idea or perceivable object is both egotistical, a subset of the survival instinct, and a natural development of human wiring.

Absolutely. Religion as expressed in the great traditions is about making sense of reality. Our brains are wired to find-- and create-- patterns. This insures that we live in a meaningful universe. Even when a post-World War II French existentialist cheers that the universe is absurd, he's applying a label that makes him feel like he now has a stance. Hence the proliferation of -isms. I agree with you.

david54 continues:

Is the importance in the focus of the belief, non-belief, acceptance that a question exists, or in the practice of compassion and growing in understanding?

Good question. Many answers. Mine follows. Sort of.

david54 also says:

If the importance is soley in the belief/non-belief/question, then the emphasis on development is NOT present. The emphasis is then on a systematic set of beliefs which have ascribed permanency and promote social control.

No tradition places sole emphasis on belief. Certainly people have tried to pin this on monotheisms, especially, say, Christianity, which gets labeled as demanding "propositional belief." These religions are faulted for stressing cognitive content, and some critics even go so far as to say they stress cognitive content to the exclusion of practice.

I find that contention in defiance of common sense. People don't sit around just thinking. They DO stuff. Belief inevitably leads to SOME kind of practice, even if it's practice that runs counter to the belief. Certainly Christians throughout history have acted both nobly and ignobly (and still do), but there is almost always a connection between their actions and their beliefs.

Also, if you believe that practice-oriented religions don't engage in "social control," you haven't seen Korean Buddhist parents forbidding their sons from marrying Korean Christian girls in the name of "practice."

david54 says:

If the importance is based on practice, with or without metaphysical indoctrination, then the variations and evolution of understanding can & will take place and so will intellectual and emotional growth.

I'm sympathetic to this, but Islam is the bete noire here. Islam is extremely practice-oriented. Much more than Christianity. It is often "without metaphysical indoctrinations," especially when you hear about non-Arabic-speaking elementary schoolers learning to recite the Koran in Arabic because, as with Hindu mantra, the power of the verse lies in the utterance and not in one's understanding of the meaning. The various Islams also have a ton of "social control"s, and I'd argue that Islam's radical wings are not exactly interested in intellectual and emotional growth. Or "evolution of understanding."

Coming back to your initial remark, though: yes. Absolutely. If we reify God, we start down the slippery slope. If I see God on the road, I should probably shoot him.

That, at least, would resolve the whole existence question to most people's satisfaction.

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