Thursday, August 19, 2004

a quickie on soteriology

Dr. Vallicella offers a very interesting response to my previous post and rejects my claim that not all religions have soteriologies. It appears that Dr. Vallicella and I are proceeding from different definitions of the word "religion." Dr. Vallicella's stance makes sense because it flows naturally from his definition, but I'm not sure how his definition would apply to the cases I mentioned, to wit: "primitive" agricultural and hunter-gatherer faiths (again, with "faith" used only loosely and with caution here) whose primary concern wasn't and isn't existential (i.e., they're not an expression of fundamental dissatisfaction with the human condition), but merely related to world-maintenance, not some form of self- or world-transcendence. Members of these traditions don't see anything fundamentally wrong with the world, nor do they envision a Way Out, to use Dr. Vallicella's term. Their tradition and practice are a reflection of "how things are" and even "how things should be."

I suppose it follows naturally from Dr. Vallicella's definition that the primitive faiths to which I'm referring aren't really religions. My own labeling of these faiths as religions is sourced in the empirical fact that many (if not most) scholars label them thus, and my own definition of religion is expansive enough to place me in that scholarly camp. The claim that not all religions have soteriologies isn't original to me; I just happen to agree with it.

But it's also true that Dr. Vallicella isn't alone in defining religion more rigorously than I and others do; there are plenty of scholars who'd back him up (I'd name them if I had my library with me, but it's back in the States). I, however, feel that Dr. Vallicella's definition works best for the major post-axial faiths.

I was about to write that what separates Dr. Vallicella from me re: the definition of religion is a mere terminological quibble, but that's not true. The issue of how to define such terms as religion and soteriology lies at the very heart of the ongoing discussion of religious pluralism. John Hick's term, "salvation/liberation," designed to be a catch-all for all major types of soteriology, has come under intense fire for its near-total lack of cognitive content: like statistical averages, it purportedly applies to everyone but specifies almost no one. Buddhists, by their own reckoning, don't seek to attain "salvation/liberation." Nor do Christians, Muslims, etc. One question for religious scholars and practitioners is the extent to which general notions of religion and soteriology are even valuable if, in actual practice, no one is attaining "salvation in general."


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