Friday, April 02, 2004

Religious Diversity Friday: Orientational Pluralism Redux

I'm trying to figure out whether S. Mark Heim might not have beaten me to the punch in developing a philosophical stance for religious pluralism that comes close to the non-philosophical, mutual-inclusivistic paradigm I'm advocating. I've critiqued his position a couple times on this blog, but I keep coming back to it and wondering whether I've done Heim justice. What follows is simply me thinking aloud.

Heim adapts a philosophical framework called "orientational pluralism" from the work of philosopher Nicholas Rescher, especially Rescher's work The Strife of Systems. The basic idea behind orientational pluralism sounds fairly simple: "one and only one position is rationally appropriate from a given perspective, but we must recognize that there is a diversity of perspectives."

I think I understand what's going on. In Salvations: Truth and Difference in Religion, Heim notes that perspectives are "one to a customer" (p. 134). If we recognize the irreducible diversity of perspectives, then it's easy to see how it's possible for people to make apparently contradictory claims: person A says he can see a train; person B says she can't.

One of the points Heim is trying to make is that our positions are the result of the interaction between our rational and evaluative faculties. Our perspective isn't informed purely by rationality: "...we necessarily assert the validity of our own perspective in exercising it." Heim writes (pp. 136-137):

The case for orientational pluralism then has two fronts. On the rational side Rescher stresses the consistency with which it can apply its principles to its own case, a consistency lacking in many competitors, including pluralistic theories. One perspective on the nature of philosophy, for instance, maintains that evidential considerations alone will lead to a single rational conclusion. But this view itself is not agreed to be the single rational conclusion of the evidence. To claim that only purely rational arguments should be allowed is to adopt one kind of value orientation. To deny that other value orientations exist can be shown by evidence to be false. But to acknowledge that the evaluative context is a crucial factor in our conclusions is to contradict one's own assertion that evidence necessarily leads to only one rational interpretation. As Rescher puts it, "If you share my values then by rational rights you should share my position. If not, you can look elsewhere... indeed you must" (Rescher 1985, 238-239). The availability of other rationally tenable views is consistent with what orientational pluralism asserts in claiming to be the most adequate account of philosophy.

On the second front, supporters of orientational pluralism make frank evaluative arguments. Philosophy struggles between a rationally rigorous practice that risks becoming largely irrelevant to primary human questions and an engagement with those great questions which is frustrated by the failure to find agreed answers. Rescher suggests that his account of the options best allows us to understand and practice philosophy as a rigorous cognitive activity which also bears on large and live human questions (Rescher 1985, 264-265). There is no determinative rational argument that philosophy must be understood in this and no other way. But if it is to be understood in this way-- if rationality and human relevance are both evaluative priorities-- then Rescher argues that orientational pluralism is the single best rational account of it. It is the true account of philosophy from this evaluative perspective, the perspective Rescher holds and commends to others.

Orientational pluralism (OP), as Heim appropriates it, supposedly allows a religious believer to simultaneously affirm the diversity of religious perspectives while arguing strongly for the validity of his own religious perspective. OP allows for the possibility that rival perspectives may in fact be wrong. It also affirms that OP itself is merely one perspective among many. Here is how Heim sums the matter up:

In summary, orientational pluralism insists there is only one reality and we are trying to know it. It is not committed to regarding other substantive views as equally valid, only as tenable from different perspectives. What is fragmented is not truth but justification or warranted assertability. The justification offered by a philosophy may be orientationally limited in appeal, but the claims themselves can be universal and unrestricted (Rescher 1985, 190). People who rationally hold contradictory views from different orientations are each justified in thinking the other wrong. "We can only pursue the truth by cultivating our truth" (Rescher 1985, 199). Philosophical positions are not opinions but judgments. And, as Rescher strikingly puts it, we are not in a position to concede that someone else's basis of judgment is superior to ours. Someone else's expertise or information may well be so. Such data enriches and expands the basis for our evaluation. But to acknowledge that others have better values or beliefs by which to judge is in effect to adopt their perspective and drop any other.

One of the major problems I have with orientational pluralism is the very notion that perspectives are discrete and come "one to a customer." Is it not possible for a person to hold to two (or more) distinct perspectives at the same time or sequentially/alternately? This might sound contradictory to people who feel that perspectives have to be logically compatible, or that a single person must necessarily possess a single perspective on reality/truth (we'll note, along with Dr. Charles B. Jones of Catholic University, that Heim, like many thinkers, conflates "truth" and "reality"), but what if, for example, you're a practitioner with a foot in two very distinct religious traditions? Does it necessarily follow that your religious perspective is somehow "unified," simply because those two traditions live within you? I don't think so. If anything, I think that such people may in fact switch religious "modes" the way others switch the hats they wear, seeing reality now this way, now that way. Among these multi-traditionalists, there may indeed be some (or many) whose perspective is seamlessly unified, but if CUA's now-deceased Hinduism expert, Father Cenkner, is right, then there are plenty of practitioners whose spirituality is "bifurcated," for lack of a better term.

I also fail to see how orientational pluralism solves the problem of hegemonic truth claims. To me, a diehard exclusivist can't become a pluralist by adopting Heim's paradigm: orientational pluralism might allow the exclusivist in question to see how it's possible for others to believe differently from him, but it doesn't prevent him from making the judgment that all other people are wrong and in need of conversion. Heim attempts to deal with this question:

Why does the recognition that diverse rational positions are appropriately held not contradict the conviction that one's own position is more valid than the others? There is a common contemporary reflex which asserts that to privilege one's own conclusions is the same as denying that others are possible or reasonable. This is clearly not so. Suppose a person lives according to conclusions we accept as perfectly rational, but whose premise-- that money is the primary end, for instance-- we do not share. If we go on to say that this premise is acceptable for that person, though it would not be for us, we make this judgment on grounds of some kind inextricably bound up with goods we value. If we affirm the appropriateness of their pursuing that end while we pursue another, we presumably regard this judgment as more valid than at least some others, made on other grounds; for instance, the judgment that the money-oriented person must be coerced in some way to conform to our view. We make a rational judgment about how to deal with differences in orientation, and we make that judgment on the basis of our orientation. In this we behave formally no differently than the person who would insist that the financier change his or her ways. One negates and the other affirms the viability of this differing evaluative orientation, but we both do so by asserting the primacy of our own evaluative orientations. This is an embarrassingly plain and unoriginal observation. But it is rather regularly disregarded. We are unable to judge our own grounds of judgment to be any anything but preferable to alternatives. This is not a legalistic but a thoroughly practical contradiction; we cannot act on two different orientations at once, even if we understand both are defensible. In the end, we are all inclusivists.

I don't think the above example addresses the problem of hegemonic truth claims. Generally, when someone claims "Christ died for our sins," they mean that claim to apply not only to themselves, but to all people everywhere. Heim is strangely silent on the issue of the nature of this value judgment. Whereas the money-oriented person might be judged in a "live and let live" manner, this kind of judgment is usually impossible for a religious exclusivist bent on converting the heathen. It's not merely a "common contemporary reflex" to "privilege one's own conclusions" while "denying that others are possible or reasonable"-- we privilege our own conclusions all the time, and this has been happening since the beginning of history. If anything, Heim's claim that the "contemporary reflex" is "clearly not so" is itself a product of modernity. The whole point of discussions revolving around pluralism is that, until now, it hasn't been obvious that we can privilege our own conclusions/perspective without denigrating others' conclusions/perspectives.

But the above quote, with its reference to inclusivism, leads me to wonder whether Heim might not be saying (or trying to say) much the same thing I am. Like Heim, I have a high tolerance for unresolved differences. My problem, though, is that Heim/Rescher's OP model still posits a single truth/reality, which renders it vulnerable to Heim's accusation, made earlier in his book against John Hick, of false pluralism. Any pluralistic model with a unitive element will necessarily fall prey to that critique.

As I said earlier, I'm also not happy with the idea that perspectives are discrete and "one to a customer." While there may be some validity in positing this at the level of the individual, the issues aren't as clear-cut when we zoom backward and start looking at traditions as a whole. Religious traditions, like other cultural phenomena, can't be adequately described as distinct and separate streams that run parallel to each other. Such an assumption seems to be implicit in both Rescher's and Heim's understanding of reality, and to my mind, that's simply too neat. No; traditions might possess a certain distinctness, but they also meld with and bleed into each other, cross-pollinating, competing, hybridizing, syncretizing, and fragmenting. A single "great" tradition contains within it a multitude of perspectives that, taken together, give the lie to the idea that it's "one [perspective] to a customer." Because of this, I question the usefulness of Heim's paradigm.

More on this later, perhaps. I need to digest this further.


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