Wednesday, December 31, 2003

my review of Heim's Salvations and more on pluralism

Here's a slightly reworked version of my review of S. Mark Heim's Salvations: Truth and Difference in Religion.

In the bumptious world of scholarly debates on religious pluralism, Mark Heim has been one of John Hick's (An Interpretation of Religion, A Christian Theology of Religions, etc.) most outspoken critics, and his Salvations: Truth and Difference in Religion devotes a chapter to a rather brutal deconstruction of Hick.

Heim also tackles Wilfred Cantwell Smith and Paul Knitter, thinkers who, like Hick, see certain unitive elements in religion.

Heim's basic intention is to appear more pluralistic than Hick and Company; his own proposal is founded on an adaptation of Nicholas Rescher's "orientational pluralism," in which "one and only one position is rationally appropriate from a given perspective." Heim argues not for a Hickian salvation-liberation or a common-essence notion like Hick's neo-Kantian "Real," but for the possibility of "salvations."

Heim does this because he feels the usual "convergent" approach of common-essence pluralism squelches the richness and particularity of religions. Heim's "more plural" pluralism also leaves open the question of whether another religious perspective may in fact be wrong.

The analogy Heim uses to illustrate his view is that of travel. Going from DC to New York, for example, is very different from going to Honolulu from the same starting point. The means to get to these places will have to vary (can you take a Greyhound bus to Honolulu from DC?), too. While various itineraries may share the very abstract notion of "travel" in common, the details of such travel are by no means "mere" details-- on the contrary, they become very significant and speak directly to the nature of the journey.

While I appreciate Heim's important contribution to the overall discussion of pluralism and his very clear (if overly punishing) critiques of Hick, I finished the book with a sense that Heim, an evangelical Protestant, arrived at his pluralistic proposal merely as a way to protect his evangelicalism, to which he still stubbornly cleaves (Heim's successive books seem to bear this out).

This childish attachment to old belief is precisely what Hick has been fighting against. Hick's proposal-- indeed, all pluralistic proposals-- demand something of their listeners: that they change. Hick wants us to work at our spirituality. By contrast, Heim is proposing a "live and let live" paradigm, which sounds nice at first blush, but once you realize he's using it to justify his own evangelicalism (which isn't a "live and let live" form of Christianity-- it's an aggressively missionizing form!), you may see Heim as more than a little duplicitous.

Hick's model does have problems; various critics have beaten his "pluralistic hypothesis" to death, and Heim's 1995 Salvations arrived on the scene in time to provide a nice wrap-up and coup de grâce. Heim's book is valuable on this score; his "orientational pluralistic" proposal is also worth study, but I recommend reading Heim cautiously, on several levels.

A couple concluding remarks: First, philosophical models of religious pluralism all inevitably fail because they contain some sort of unitive element that makes them unacceptable. Heim's model is no exception: in the travel analogy, all travel occurs on the surface of a single earth. Heim's model therefore allows for multiple salvations, but still posits a numerically singular reality-- which is something he accuses Hick of when dealing with Hick's "Real." Hick, however, has been at pains to explain that his notion of the Real is not necessarily numerically singular (cf. Hick 1995)-- a crucial nondualistic point often missed in the ongoing debates over Hick.

Second: Hick, Heim, Stephen Kaplan, and others with philosophical models of pluralism all seem to assume that religion has a soteriological dimension. I don't agree with this assumption: philosophical Taoism has no soteriology (swim with or against the Tao; it's all Tao), and so-called "primitive" religions were more about world-maintenance than personal or corporate salvation.

Anyway, I ended up writing tons of notes in the margins of Heim's book. Whether you agree or disagree with Heim, you'll find him thought-provoking and stimulating.

Ryan has written an excellent reply to my previous post about interreligious dialogue and pluralism. A snippet:

...pluralism has always puzzled me. From my very unsophisticated understanding of it, there are two kinds. A weak pluralism doesn't deny normative differences- it just asks everyone to do everyone else the favor of not slaughtering their fellow men over religious differences. This seems perfectly acceptable to me- as long as we keep in mind that it requires us to all adhere to a host of normative claims. It gets very sticky when you start to establish a pluralist community- would you allow missionaries into your ideal pluralist world? Female genital mutilation? How about sex with small children? Multiple wives? From this vantage point, it looks like building a pluralist society becomes little different from building a Unitarian society. And everyone knows the old joke: "What do you get when you mix a Unitarian and a Jehovah's Witness? Someone who knocks on doors every Saturday for no particular reason."

Then there's strong pluralism, which as far as I can discern comes closer to what Nate wrote. This is the "Whether you know it or not, you're all doing the same thing" sort of pluralism. This is the kind of pluralism that uses the word "God" when discussing religions which have no discernible connection with any such concept. There are some types of Buddhists whose views are so incompatible I just couldn't imagine them joining an interfaith discussion table where the common underlying link is assumed to be God.


So I'm still uncertain of how pluralism works, or what the point of it is. I need to do more reading on it- considering it's a very hot concept right now, and theological circles tend to get very giddy at the prospect of interfaith dialogue and whatnot. I guess I'm just partial to studying strong religions- religions that demand obedience from their followers and accept no compromises. When I hear the word "pluralism", I immediately think of light beer, skim milk, or fat-free potato chips. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

There is a pluralism of religious pluralisms, and a pluralism of typologies of religious pluralism. The one I find most useful comes from Kate McCarthy's excellent chapter, "Reckoning with Religious Difference," in Explorations in Global Ethics. McCarthy divides the pluralisms into "convergent" and "nonconvergent" strains.

"Convergent" pluralisms are ones that make use of common-essence terminology, or analogies like "many paths to the same summit." The stress is on commonalities; the goal is important, and the means of achieving the goal are assumed to be secondary at best. While many post-Hick thinkers critique this form of pluralism as "pluralism in name only," McCarthy's label, "convergent," is less critical: the pluralism might or might not reside in ultimate reality, but it's empirically evident in the various approaches/responses to that reality. There's no hypocrisy or self-contradiction in referring to a multiplicity of paths as a form of pluralism.

"Nonconvergent" pluralisms are those that argue for multiple soteriologies (Heim) and/or multiple ontologies/ultimate realities (Kaplan).

As you can see, most pluralistic models (inadvertently?) take soteriology as their point of departure, not the question of ultimate reality. As I suggested in the above book review, I think this is a mistake.

My own feeling, after being exposed to several philosophical models of religious pluralism, is that, in the end, a philosophical approach to a religious question isn't going to be all that constructive. Hick refers to his own pluralistic hypothesis as "a religious view of religion," but this isn't immediately apparent because his hypothesis, which relies so heavily on Kant and advaitic Hinduism, is more of a philosophical view of religion. This makes his proposal both less compelling and less available to the masses; its appeal is largely to academics (or the academically minded) who are, I think, already predisposed to such thinking.

Hick's impulse in creating the hypothesis, however, is indisputably religious, and this is where I'd address Ryan's feeling that pluralism is a kind of thought-Olestra leading to the cosmic anal leakage of religious muddling and mediocrity.

The great gift of pluralism (to the extent we can speak of pluralism as one "-ism") is that it provides a perspective that wasn't as readily available in the old days. Global interconnection through scarily good communications and travel technology has made pluralism not only possible but plausible as a mode of (religious, etc.) thinking in the modern world. Yes, it's primarily the product of Western religious (Christian, liberal, blah, blah) academe, but such thinking had to begin somewhere-- and it's based on a grass-roots intuition held by many. One form of it is: "As a Christian, I just can't believe that a truly loving God would condemn perfectly decent non-Christians to hell." It's an intuition rooted in love-- a love not possible when you've been trained to have a bunker mentality, the stark dualism of Us vs. Them, Sheep vs. Goats, children of Light vs. forces of darkness, enlightened vs. unenlightened, House of Islam vs. House of War.

Religious pluralistic thinking isn't about the formation of monoculture, the melding of all religions into one sopping, near-homogeneous mass. I agree with one of my former profs that monoculture (something the postmodernists claim to fear) simply can't happen: the human impulse to diversity and difference is just too strong. As much as I bash a conformist society like South Korea, I have to admit that SK's people are as varied and unique as any other people, when you take the time to stand back and let the differences become visible. So let's toss out monoculture as the purely imaginary bugbear it is.

But like it or not, initial critiques of Hick were along these lines. Monoculture worries people. The feeling in many quarters was (and largely still is) that Hick's pluralistic hypothesis is some insidious form of crypto-inclusivism. To these people, Hick's hypothesis sounds a lot like he's making some kind of meta-religion, a religion of the Real, a superparadigm into which all other religious paradigms can be fitted and funneled. Salvation, vaguely defined by Hick as "reorientation from self-centeredness to Reality-centeredness," offering a "limitlessly better possibility," is the funnel for Christian heaven, Buddhist nirvana, Hindu moksa, etc. This is, after all, how an inclusivistic paradigm works: all other religions are merely inferior versions of my religion, whose underlying principle is working in and through those other religions. The official Catholic stance, post Vatican 2, is inclusivistic: other great traditions can be viewed as ways of salvation to the extent that their tenets reflect Christic reality, which works in and through these traditions. Hick seems to be saying something similar, but on a meta-level: all religions are culturally mediated responses to the Real (his catch-all term for ultimate reality), which some cultures view in terms of personae (e.g. the God of the Abrahamic monotheisms) or impersonae (e.g. ultimate reality in nontheistic Hindu and Buddhist thought, say, nirguna brahman and emptiness).

But other critics saw Hick's hypothesis as crypto-exclusivism. To these critics, Hick's hypothesis ends up being little more than one religious view among many. It does, in fact, exclude people: traditional exclusivists and inclusivists, both of whom Hick sees, unequivocally, as dead wrong in their convictions. And it's true that many pluralists interested in "dialogue" have a tendency to want to exclude hardcore fundamentalists from interreligious discussions, largely because they assume, from the outset, that they know what the fundies will say.

The problem, then, is a fundamentalism in reverse. This discussion is well-known in American political circles, because we're talking about the conservative critique of liberal paternalism, arrogance, and oppressiveness (actually, these nasty traits aren't the unique province of liberals; conservatives and moderates and other folks are all potential assholes in this regard).

While this critique holds water, it means little if we avoid talking about the problems that pluralistic thinking is trying to address. What are some of the fruits of religious exclusivism, especially in its fundamentalist form? Well, fundamentalism is deadly, and we have abortion clinic bombings, Muslim-Christian violence in Nigeria, Buddhist/Hindu/Christian violence in Sri Lanka, and 9/11 as ample proof of this. Even in its nonviolent forms, the fundamentalist meme breeds unhealthy behaviors in its carriers: religious intolerance, racism, homophobia, self-righteousness-- and perhaps most poisonous from the perspective of a largely pluralist, secularized America, a blinkered, inbred worldview, which Koreans derisively refer to as "the frog in the well." Open-mindedness, the unblinkered perspective, is problematic when one becomes tolerant of everything or incapable of making important decisions. But absolute tolerance and fuzzy relativism aren't, to my mind, what religious pluralists such as Hick are advocating. Even tolerant Christian pluralists are likely to freak when daughter Janie introduces her boyfriend with, "Mom, this is Bill, and he's a Satanist." Hick is taking a stance that includes definite notions about what's right and what's wrong.

Religious pluralism isn't working toward the deconstruction of all religions. It's not working toward monoculture or some sort of religious Pangaea. It's not about relativism, though it is about removing the hegemonic arrogance that's the unfortunate (but not inevitable) consequence of the conviction of one's own uniqueness. Pluralism is a direct response to the poison that results from overly black-and-white, dualistic thinking.

As pluralistic rhetoric expands into less-academic circles, I think the tenor of the discussion will become less philosophical (in fact, most interreligious encounter is already on this practical, informal level). People may come to agree that it's not necessary for pluralism to be an "-ism" in a formalized, philosophical sense: pluralism need not be based on philosophical or religious models (though I don't think we should stop exploring models, because you never know what the incidental benefits will be). Personally, I am more and more partial to a "groundless pluralism" that starts from religious practice and expresses itself as a kind of mutual inclusivism, a reciprocal and paradoxical hegemony of truth claims. Of course, without firm foundational principles, there's little on which to base meaningful praxis, but so what? Better the Living Word, the squirming Dharma, than the dead letter, the dry logos.

I think the subtext of John Hick's approach (and Hick's thinking has affected me the most, of all the pluralists I've read) is that a major conversion is necessary, from the tendency to extremism to the tendency to moderation. Such conversions are woefully rare; most extremists convert from one extreme faith to another, never once considering what it might be like to try the moderate approach, the middle way. St. Paul is singularly unimpressive to me because he's a prime example of someone who went from antipode to antipode. When people critique Hick because they think he's formed a meta-religion, they miss the obvious fact that he's a Christian who hasn't tried to establish a splinter Church of Pluralism. That, in a nutshell, is the essential bullshit of the primary critique against Hick. He's not going to extremes; if you read between the lines, he's preaching a middle way, and doing so from an unabashedly specific perspective.

The risk in the pluralistic approach is the risk inherent in all approaches, though: it, too, can become calcified; the mythos of pluralism can crystallize into the stiff and unyielding logos of pluralistic doctrine, dogma, and rhetoric, and at that point pluralism truly does become only one perspective among many-- another example of liberal arrogance, paternalism, and all the rest. This is why, for pluralism to remain viable, it has to remain both plural and dialogical.

Another argument for pluralism, again a result of modern humanity's high level of interconnection, is the realization (perhaps best voiced by Raimundo Panikkar in his The Intrareligious Dialogue) that no religion can any longer afford to view itself as self-complete. This is, to my mind, a valuable Buddhist insight (Panikkar's a Catholic priest with deep background in Hinduism and Buddhism), but the theme of interdependence is by no means unique to Buddhism: the ethics of interdependence are known in all the major traditions.

Where exclusivists fail is in their arrogant belief in their own tradition's self-completeness. Let's be clear: this isn't an academic observation; it's my own personal religious evaluation. Two of the biggest motivations behind interreligious dialogue are curiosity and compassion. These are attitudes bespeaking openness-- something else that's missing from the exclusivistic viewpoint. To be sure, pluralism contains its own exclusivism, but note the nature of its exclusivism, what it's excluding. I'm no utopianist, so I don't believe my own advocacy of religious pluralism is part of a larger struggle that will result in a stable, eternal, happy-happy pluralistic eschaton. Like Panikkar, I believe this is about "dialogical dialogue," a moving process, not a fixed product. Emptiness expresses itself as form; mythos and logos are inextricably connected, not-two. Pluralism has to take a form, but it also has to move, to live. And since we're not talking about relativism, I'll state for the record that I think fundamentalism, while it may have its place in the greater Mystery, is the wrong way to go, and history has given us ample evidence this is so. The move from an extreme position to one of moderation is the hardest move to make, and that's what I think pluralism, at its best, is all about.