Friday, March 05, 2004

"Towards Thinner Theologies" ?

The Philosophical Challenge of Religious Diversity has proved to be an enriching, difficult, and often frustrating read-- but enjoyable all the same. Although the chapters were written by many contributors with diverse backgrounds and agendas, the book's major focus was on two scholars: John Hick and William P. Alston. Hick is arguably the most famous formulator and defender of the standard "convergent" religious pluralist position (but I'd still place Raimondo Panikkar at the top of the pluralist pantheon, keeping in mind that Panikkar is probably a "nonconvergent" pluralist). Alston, heretofore unknown to me, is apparently a huge defender of religious exclusivism. Alvin Plantinga's chapter defending exclusivism (which I review here), while important in itself, seems to serve, in this book, as something like an introduction to the concepts used by Alston in his defense of exclusivism. Many of the book's other contributors are defenders and/or critics of Hick's and Plantinga/Alston's positions. There's very little discussion of inclusivism (cf. S. Mark Heim for more on this; although Heim offers a "more pluralist" hypothesis than Hick, his own personal stance remains firmly Christian inclusivist).

The final chapter of Philosophical Challenge is by Philip L. Quinn. It's titled "Towards Thinner Theologies"-- a title suggesting that Quinn might be in the same camp I'm in with regard to a "groundless pluralism" that minimizes-- or does away completely with-- philosophical formulations.* The chapter is a fitting end to the book because it examines both Hick's and Alston's positions, finding merits and demerits to both.

[*NB: The link to this post is highly unstable, thanks to Blogspot's awful software. The post's title is "The Question of Religious Pluralism," and is dated July 13, 2003. Please search via my dated archive links if the direct link doesn't work.]

Alston introduces a term that's new to me: doxastic practice. Doxastic practices are, according to Alston in his own chapter (p. 195), "practices of belief-formation," and we employ a plurality of these practices in our daily lives. If different doxastic practices are brought to bear in order to produce similar results, it's possible to compare their relative merits and demerits. Alston uses weather prediction as one example. Some people take a scientific, meteorological approach to this; others use the pain in their joints; still others watch groundhogs. Because these practices all aim at the same goal (weather prediction), it's possible to judge them according to their efficiency.

Alston feels, however, that it is disanalogous to compare religious doxastic practices this way, because there are real questions as to whether religious doxastic practices share enough common ground for firm comparison. This is the grounds on which Alston critiques John Hick, whom Alston sees as engaging in this disanalogy. Alston also feels that Christian religious doxastic practice's justifiability arises from its overall self-consistency and self-support-- an important criterion, according to Alston, for judging the reliability/justifiability of any doxastic practice. Such justifiability runs counter to Hick's and other pluralists' arguments against the justifiability of an exclusivist stance.

[NB: the potential circularity of a self-supporting doxastic practice is discussed in Philosophical Challenge, and the conclusion seems to be that some degree of circularity is inevitable. In the end, one's dependence on a doxastic practice boils down to whether "it works," or more exactly, whether "it works for me."]

As with Plantinga, Alston seems to be fighting a defensive action, giving exclusivism some breathing room without going further to claim that the exclusivist way is, objectively, the right way. While it's true that the reality of religious diversity can be problematic for the sincere religious practitioner, the questions arising from that diversity need not undermine the overall religious practice, to the extent that that practice is able to remain self-consistent and self-supporting. In fact, Alston believes that, in the face of religious diversity, a practitioner's most rational course of action is merely to "sit tight" and continue on with his/her current practice.

Quinn, in his chapter, disagrees that "sitting tight" is the only rational course available: it is also possible to adjust one's stance in accordance to what one learns from interaction with other religious perspectives, i.e., alter one's own religious doxastic practice (see especially pp. 240-242, passim).

Quinn takes Hick to task on the same grounds as George Mavrodes: inconsistencies in Hick's schematization and treatment of absolute reality, which Hick names "the Real." Hick's Real is that toward which religions are aimed, and of which they are imperfect and/or culturally mediated expressions. Following Kant's distinction between noumenon and phenomenon, as well as advaita vedantic Hinduism's distinction between nirguna and saguna brahman (Brahman [Absolute reality] without and with qualities), Hick sees religions as vessels for the phenomenal Real, but what they are really hinting at is the noumenal Real.

At times, Hick seems to attribute no qualities at all (or, at best, certain formal qualities) to this noumenal Real. Quinn's objection to Hick is the classic one, highlighting the dangers of positing something about which nothing can be said: what's to distinguish this "something" from nothing at all?

But that's not the objection that interests me. What interests me more is Quinn's (and Mavrodes's) questioning of Hick's use of Kantian notions, and here I made an interesting discovery about Kantian theory.

There are, according to Quinn and Mavrodes, two primary ways in which to view the relationship between Kantian noumenon and phenomenon. (I'll use Mavrodes's typology here, since Quinn borrows it.) The first and far less popular way is the "disguise model." Mavrodes offers this analogy: suppose a medieval prince wants to move about his father's kingdom undetected so he can see what life is like for the kingdom's subjects. He disguises himself as a monk in one place, as an artisan somewhere else, etc. The people who encounter the prince experience him as a monk, an artisan, etc.-- but not as a prince. However, there is nevertheless an identity between monk and prince, or artisan and prince, because if the monk were to fall into a lake and drown, then the prince would also fall into a lake and drown.

The second, more widely accepted way to understand the noumenon-phenomenon relationship is the "construct model." Here Mavrodes gives us a different image: several abstract artists sit side by side in the outdoors, painting the same landscape. The buildings, the hills, the sheep, the people, the trees, the sky, etc.-- all of these things figure somehow in each artist's painting, but because these are abstract paintings, the various components of the landscape may be difficult or impossible to recognize. What's more, the artists' paintings will all be different from each other. However, if asked, each artist will insist that the actual landscape did indeed play a real role in the creation of the artwork. Had the landscape been different, the paintings would also have been different. Thus the paintings are constructions of the landscape. There is a definite relationship between painting and landscape, but no necessary identity: if I slash one of the paintings, I don't thereby slash the real landscape.

According to Mavrodes and Quinn, there are moments in Hick's writing when he favors the disguise model for understanding the noumenal and phenomenal Real, and other moments when he favors the construct model. To move back and forth between the two models is inconsistent, and both Mavrodes and Quinn provide plenty of Hick-quotes to substantiate their claim that Hick is doing this. I came away convinced that they're onto something, but I've sensed from the beginning that Hick's schema has problems, so their observation comes as no real surprise.

The fundamental confusion in Hick's project may be a product of Hick's "dual career," as some scholars argue: Hick is both a theologian and a philosopher, and his attempts at a philosophical articulation of his religious motives may be self-undermining. I think the dual-career argument is correct, because I too see a division between Hick's ethical/religious and philosophical projects. Ultimately, I side with Hick for ethical reasons (I think pluralism is morally right), but I can't subscribe totally to his philosophical model. However, for those interested in pursuing the philosophical angle, I think Hick's model's rigor comes from the nebulousness of its central concept, the Real. Is the Real numerically singular, or is it more like the advaitic nondualist "one without a second"-- i.e., not countable? The answer seems to depend on which Hick you're reading. This oscillation creates many of the inconsistencies on which scholarly critiques of Hick focus, but it may also be a necessary feature of Hick's model, and one reason why the model remains in use-- and largely intact-- despite constant, often blistering, critique since the mid-1980s.

I thought that Quinn's chapter would lead to a conclusion similar to my own. I thought he would conclude that the pluralist project's best hope is to move toward a "groundless pluralism" that takes the form of a kind of mutual inclusivism, one in which practitioners can, if they choose, remain fully rooted in their own practice, fully justified in viewing others through the lens of that practice, and yet paradoxically (groundlessly) willing to allow themselves to be reinterpreted by the Other. The Rahner-Nishitani dialogue in which Karl Rahner pronounced himself "honored" to be thought an "anonymous Buddhist" is paradigmatic here. This mutual inclusivism can't be willy-nilly; it can and should involve Panikkar's "dialogical dialogue," which occurs both internally and externally. The benefits of such a mutual inclusivism are very practical, in that metaphysical and dogmatic questions are bracketed in favor of addressing immediate ethical-practical issues of external and internal human flourishing. This isn't to say that the speculative, philosophical, and theological aspects of religious practice should simply be closed off; obviously, that's impossible. But a truly "religious view of religion," to borrow Hick's phrase, needs to be sourced in the heart-- not in the textbook, nor even in the holy scriptures.

In the end, Quinn's own conclusion doesn't take this path; he gives no hint of what a "thinner theology" might look like. He simply claims that there is nothing irrational about proceeding in the direction of "thicker phenomenologies and thinner theologies, even if [practitioners] are not yet ready to go all the way to the Hickian view that it is nothing but phenomenology almost all the way down."

A large portion of The Philosophical Challenge of Religious Diversity is focused on the "Plantingan" questions of justification, warrant, and rationality. These issues are in turn intimately interrelated with questions of epistemology. As I argued in my post on Plantinga, I don't find this "justification/rationality" aspect of the larger discussion all that relevant: the issues that concern pluralists are, I think, much more practical in nature (though I know this isn't the case for all pluralists, by any means). Plantinga ends up neutralizing pluralist accusations of arrogance (etc.) against exclusivists on rational/epistemic grounds, but he also neutralizes accusations of arrogance against pluralists (and "liberal arrogance" is a much-loved phrase of conservatives, and often justified!-- do religious conservatives really want this rhetorical weapon taken from them?). Alston's argument seems to be little more than a fancier version of Plantinga's; it too relies on epistemological considerations. Hick's pluralistic hypothesis has been described by Stephen Kaplan as "epistemological pluralism," which I suppose means he views Hick's Real mainly through the "construct model," but this also means that Hick's argument, like the arguments of his critics, has a large epistemological component: how do people know the Real?

So while I might not have much truck with justification/warrant issues, it's a matter of brute fact that questions of epistemology nevertheless arise in current discussions of religious diversity, and perhaps this is as it should be. For a Christian to talk about his own religious experience, or for a Buddhist to talk about what she gains from meditative practice, is necessarily to invite epistemology into the room.

This leads me to one of my greatest frustrations: with so many theorists of religion taking an "epistemological turn" these days, why aren't more scientists involved in this discussion? One of the things that bugs me to death about theories of knowledge is that those theories have been and still are propounded by thinkers who had (and have) little to no notion of how the physical brain and body actually interact with their surroundings. Neuroscience has a lot to offer to the religious discussion; the discipline wasn't born yesterday. Religious thinkers need to be weaned from the abstruse vocabularies of "percepts" and "hyle" and glib Lonerganian formulations like "experience, understand, judge, decide"-- as if these schemata provided the only sound means for analyzing the nature of thought and knowledge. My prediction is that, here as elsewhere, religion will find itself retreating in the face of scientific discovery. The more technologically adept we become, the more it makes sense for us to view ourselves and our surroundings less in an analog manner than in a digital one.

In the meantime, the fact of religious diversity will present plenty of grist for religious (and scientific, political, etc.) discussion, speculation, and praxis. The Philosophical Challenge of Religious Diversity is one highlight of that discussion. If you're not afraid of often-dense material and have some hankering for philosophical and religious questions, I highly recommend this volume. My only real disappointment with it is that it takes no consideration of Raimondo Panikkar's enormous contribution to religious pluralism, and says nothing about S. Mark Heim's Rescherian orientational pluralism.


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