Wednesday, August 18, 2004

do all religions teach basically the same thing?

Andi's post here leads to an interesting link here that deals with the question facing anyone of a pluralistic bent: do all religions teach basically the same thing?

As someone with an academic interest in world religions, I'd have to say the answer is an obvious no. Academics are understandably cautious about over-hasty conflations, as when someone claims that all religions are, at heart, the same. As a religious pluralist, however, I'd have to say that I have no conclusive answer to this question, but that I treat the "convergent pluralist" line with caution.

The conservative critique of the claim that all religions teach the same thing is that, in order to make this claim, one has to ignore (or at least radically downplay) a great deal of variety both within and among religious traditions. To my mind, one also has to ignore (or downplay) the fact that a great number of traditions fall under the academic rubric "religion," and these include traditions that aren't among the major post-axial faiths.

An example of generalist whitewashing: most philosophical and theological models of religious pluralism (whether the orientational pluralism of S. Mark Heim, the holographic pluralism of Stephen Kaplan, or the neo-Kantian "epistemological pluralism" of John Hick) assume that "religion" entails a soteriological dimension of some sort-- i.e., salvation. To make a global claim, one has to define salvation so vaguely that the word will have little meaning to actual adherents of specific traditions. But there is a another problem facing religious pluralists, namely: not all religions have a soteriology.

The best examples of non-soteriological religion come from the still-extant "primitive" agricultural and hunter-gatherer faiths (a term I use with caution) that concern themselves more with so-called "world-maintenance" and less with humanity's existential condition. These traditions have, as their aim, such pedestrian goals as getting through the drought season, or producing large crops, or having a plentiful hunt. They aren't deeply asking, "Who am I?" or "What is the nature of ultimate reality?", nor are they necessarily concerned with humanity as a whole, or with some form of personal or corporate salvation. Pluralists routinely ignore such traditions in their haste to form pluralist models.

John Hick's notion of "salvation/liberation," which Hick defined as the move "from self-centeredness to Reality-centeredness" and as the prospect of facing "a limitlessly better possibility," is an example of just the sort of content-free soteriological notion that can drive conservatives nuts. Hick has, conservatives say, fought himself into a corner by moving so quickly away from religious particularity to embrace a vague generality to which no one can properly relate. The high level of abstraction prevents Hick from saying anything more than he's already said.

[Note, too, that the most vocal of Hick's critics, S. Mark Heim, is a fellow pluralist but a religious conservative (I've discussed the issue of how one can be pluralist and conservative before, so I won't rehash that here)!]

Generalist claims about religion have to face the charge of "liberal arrogance," i.e., the active disrespect of particularity, otherness, and difference. Who am I to claim, as a liberal Presbyterian-- and without consulting you first-- that your Buddhist practice is pointing in the same salvific direction as my Christian practice, producing essentially the same existential effects? Who am I to dismiss the accumulated textual and ritological history of your tradition as merely secondary to my generalist claim that you and I are basically doing the same thing, even if our respective forms of praxis look different? Who am I to make the claim that the core notions in your tradition match up with the core notions in mine, such that any differences are "mere details"?

I'm not politically liberal or conservative (at least, I don't actively align myself with either camp), but if we gauge my beliefs according to the PCUSA tradition to which I belong, then from the perspective of that tradition I'm a flaming religious liberal. As such, I take charges of liberal arrogance seriously, because the charges have merit and my goal isn't to sell yet another form of religious arrogance. Is it possible to arrive at a truly pluralistic pluralism?

The issues for someone in my position are practical: do I simply dismiss as bigotry the Muslim belief that there is no God but God and Muhammad is his prophet? Do I dismiss the historical reality of the missionary impulse found in the Abrahamic faiths as well as in Buddhism? Do I demand that all religious adherents do what I've done and deconstruct some key theological notions because I find them inimical to irenological praxis (e.g., the exclusivistic notion that one approaches the ultimate only through the salvific action of Jesus Christ)? Should I, for example, tell someone who petitions Kwan-yin (in Korean, Kwaneum) that his petitions are going unheard because he's engaging in superstition?

Another problem for a nonessentialist like me is that essentialist claims such as "all religions have a common core" run against the grain of my basic stance. I'm very sympathetic to Buddhist and philosophical Taoist metaphysics and agree that there are no essences. As a pluralist, however, I admit I'm attracted to the idea that, because we share a common humanity, we also share a common basis in our religious praxis. But I don't think this idea is compatible with nonessentialism. The two together don't produce a coherent position.*

[*NB: Whether "a coherent position" can or should be a goal in religious belief and practice is a discussion for another post, but it's very much related to what we're talking about here.]

There is a pluralism of pluralisms, as I've noted in previous essays (see the bottom of my sidebar for essays related to issues in religion and religious pluralism). Kate McCarthy uses the typology of "convergent" versus "non-convergent" (or "divergent") pluralisms to distinguish between people like John Hick, who posit some sort of common essence (or "common soteriological summit," if you will), and people like S. Mark Heim and Stephen Kaplan, who posit the possibility of a multiplicity of ontologies and soteriologies. The pluralist camp is itself divided on what pluralism means and entails. In my opinion, this isn't a bad thing at all; I'd be more worried if pluralism qua school of thought were a monolithic bloc.

I think it's instructive to hear pluralists critique each other. For example, Heim accuses Hick of putting forward a false pluralism, or "crypto-inclusivism," that pays lip service to sociocultural diversity in religious praxis but steamrollers such diversity at the level of ontology and soteriology. At the same time, the Hickian camp finds the notion of "multiple ultimates" ridiculous on its face, and this charge may have merit depending on the operational definition of "ultimate" and how seriously one takes the law of non-contradiction.

Heim might have a point contra Hick: to move too quickly to general, universalist claims about all religions (or at least the major post-axial ones) is to sacrifice pluralism at a deep level. At the same time, I think Hick's basic motive, which is to advocate the change/removal of pernicious elements in religion that encourage human divisiveness and strife, is sourced in a sincere religious impulse to decrease human suffering. Hick's stance demands ethical change, what Christians might call metanoia. Heim's divergent pluralism, while "more plural" than Hick's convergent pluralism, seems to advocate a "live and let live" stance that makes interreligious dialogue simultaneously easier in some respects and more difficult in others. Heim's orientational paradigm paradoxically rejects the common-essence approach to the question of all religions while seemingly advocating an essentialist view of each discrete tradition (or tradition's perspective).

To my mind, the charge of false pluralism often leveled against Hick isn't really as serious as it seems. Stephen Kaplan charitably calls Hick's stance "epistemological pluralism" because Hick's model concerns itself with how we come to know (and abide in) the Absolute. Hick's neo-Kantian model is perfectly pluralist if one confines one's scrutiny to epistemological (and not onto-/soteriological) issues. Kate McCarthy's label "convergent pluralism" is also a charitable way of viewing Hick's model.

I think it's incumbent on us pluralists to be clear about whether, in crafting pluralistic models, we are being descriptive or prescriptive. There's a huge difference between making the "factual" claim that "variations between religions are mere detail" and the more hortatory statement that "variations between religions should be viewed as mere detail." I think Hick's model, for example, tries both to describe and prescribe at the same time. This is problematic, and isn't unique to Hick.

It's highly unlikely that anyone other than a fellow pluralist will be interested in yet another pluralistic claim or hypothesis. This leads once again to the issue of religious arrogance, and the fact that even a pluralist is saying, at bottom, "I'm right to be pluralist and you're wrong to remain stuck in your blinkered, exclusivistic worldview." (I did a whole essay on Plantinga's take on the matter; you can read my thoughts here.) Suffice it to say that accusations of arrogance are equally applicable in all directions because, as Heim and Kaplan correctly point out in their respective ways, a pluralistic position is, whatever its metatheoretical pretensions, just one position among many. As such, it both includes and excludes, like any other position.

As a pluralist, for example, I roundly reject fundamentalist, exclusivistic interpretations of scripture. Is it any surprise that a fundie would find me arrogant to think him benighted? I'm sure that a Muslim terrorist would take a dim view of my dim view of his version of Islam.

Readers of this blog know that my own take on the pluralistic project is similar to that of Raimondo Panikkar, another godfather in the ongoing pluralism discussion: philosophical and theological models are futile. I don't see how it's possible to arrive at a firm philosophical grounding for a pluralistic stance, nor do I believe that such a grounding is necessary, because I no longer see pluralism as a position, per se: I see it as praxis. Pluralism isn't theoretical; it's lived. The paradigm case for me was and remains the exchange between Catholic theologian Karl Rahner and the Zen Buddhist Nishitani: Rahner had explained his inclusivist notion of the "anonymous Christian," and Nishitani wondered whether he could label Rahner an anonymous Buddhist. Rahner reportedly said, "I'd be honored." Such mutual inclusivism is, in my opinion, the best pluralism. The spirit that motivated Rahner's response (and, I assume, Nishitani's satisfaction with it) is the ineffable, inarticulable base undergirding this lived pluralism.

So I'm a pluralist, a theological liberal, but I take very seriously the conservative critiques of the pluralistic project. I agree, along with conservative critics, that pluralists are often far too quick to be dismissive of difference in their haste to claim fundamental essence or sameness. As someone sympathetic to Buddhist and philosophical Taoist nonessentialism, I think pluralists make the wrong move when they try to posit any sort of essence to religion as human phenomenon and/or expression of ultimate reality. I recognize that this stance places me well outside my own Presbyterian tradition, which in turn indicates that my pluralism is indeed building walls and generating its own exclusivism (and, potentially, its own arrogance).

At the same time, I don't think Heim's conservative "live and let live" approach (Heim's an evangelical Protestant) is the best pluralistic answer. Heim's orientational pluralism is too reificationist: it makes religious traditions more discrete than they actually are. Heim's model doesn't work too well when applied to Catholic priests who have received inka and who are also full-time Zen roshis, for example: according to Heim, these people embody only a single religious perspective. Maybe they do; maybe they don't. It's too early in the discussion to make such claims. But if they don't, that's a strike against Heim's paradigm.

I think Hick's classically convergent pluralistic model has too many basic flaws to be workable. The neo-Kantian nature of the model, as I've discussed in other essays, is deeply problematic. No sane Zen Buddhist would agree with it: to see with the dharma eye is not to see only part-way into the true nature of reality. But Hick's motivation is sound: his writings point out the ills of exclusivism and (non-mutual) inclusivism and demand a better answer than what humanity has produced so far.

Pluralistic models might work best in their prescriptive modes, but they fail to resonate to the extent they're being descriptive. How many traditional, practicing Buddhists will agree that Buddhism's core terms are merely a culturally mediated response to the Real (Hick), or that both Christianity and Buddhism have every right to continue to make their respective claims of superiority (Heim), or that all religions are seeing different aspects of an ontologically holographic reality (Kaplan)?

I remember making the mistake of trying to articulate a nonpersonalistic view of ultimate reality during a Bible study class at my church many years ago. I remember saying something about reality being flux, and one person interrupted me to gripe, "But how do you pray to a flux?" To this person, the personalistic nature of ultimate reality wasn't a "mere detail"; it was a vitally important component of his belief structure. While I'm still no friend of over-literal interpretations of scripture, and I still believe that we Christians (at least) need to do away with some extremely antiquated and downright poisonous religious notions, I also agree with the conservative caution that we can't write off blessed variety as mere detail. A heedless pluralism is little better than a conceptual bludgeon. For people working toward peace, the first step must always, always be silence, and that means listening first to the claims made by the Other, respecting their differences, then proceeding as best we can in both wordy and wordless dialogue, living our pluralism and not preaching it as a formula.

Do all religions teach basically the same thing? The best answer I have right now is, "Let's find out together."

[NB: It could be argued that the claim "all religions teach the same thing" is meant to apply only to the realm of ethical human conduct. But this isn't, in fact, all that religions teach, not by a long shot. All the great post-axial religions have something to say about the nature of ultimate reality (not all deal with soteriology, as I've previously argued is the case with philosophical Taoism). Insights into reality's nature are integral to the question of praxis. Religions will vary on whether those insights constitute orthodoxy or not. Is anatman a doctrine, per se? The answer will depend on which Buddhist you consult! The same goes for the trinitarian nature of the divine-- doctrine? Brute ontological fact? Both? Neither?]

[NB2: I dealt with the question of "liberal arrogance" in terms of its disrespect for difference. Liberals would be right to point out conservative religious arrogance, e.g., the fundamentalist Christian who dismisses all non-Christians as equally hellbound and in need of the saving Word of God. Here, too, we see active disrespect for the Other. Reading Plantinga has been very instructive on this point; he's completely convinced me-- perhaps in spite of himself (he's a defender of religious exclusivism)-- that arrogance-related arguments from any camp will lead nowhere: the religious pluralist has legitimate reasons for viewing the exclusivist as arrogant, and vice versa. Which leads to the great unsolved mystery: and so what?]


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