Sunday, August 29, 2004

recurrent terms (1): exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism

The following are some very superficial explanations of recurrent terms in my discussions of religious pluralism on this blog. My purpose is to provide readers with a bit of background in order better to understand my and others' arguments for and against various forms of religious pluralism. Note that not all scholars (or non-scholars) will agree with how I've laid these concepts out; as a pluralist, I accept such disagreement as a simple and unavoidable fact of human discourse.

exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism as commonly understood by most scholars today:

Exclusivism is the idea that one's own religious path is the only correct one. All other paths are excluded because all others are wrong. Only one path leads to salvation, or the ultimate, or whatever goal is envisioned by the tradition in question. One gets to Heaven only through the saving grace of Jesus Christ, for example.

It's important to note, however, that all truth claims with any level of specificity are, to some degree, exclusivistic. Having a definite opinion about the Absolute means that one is already excluding large blocs of differently-minded people. Exclusivists never fail to mention this because it means that pluralists (see below) are exclusivistic, too.

I should also note that some scholars say there are degrees of exclusivism.

Inclusivism is the idea that one's home tradition is the most efficient path to salvation, but other traditions (not all others, necessarily) can also lead to salvation as envisioned by the home tradition. These traditions are imperfect vehicles, however, and the ultimate reality that shines through the home tradition is realized less fully in other traditions.

A Christian inclusivist might, for example, say that Hinduism is a way of salvation, but only insofar as Hindus conduct themselves in a manner that realizes Christian ideals. Another way of looking at it is that "Christ is working through other religions"-- e.g., it's not Krsna or brahman one is encountering, but the living Christ. Some critics are very disturbed by this reading of religions, because it seems to give adherents of the home tradition license to make claims that sound conciliatory, but in fact aren't. Others say this isn't the case at all.

As of the mid-1960s, the Catholic Church's stance is officially inclusivistic. The current pope has been especially interested in interreligious dialogue, but many of the recent-- and more confrontational-- documents emanating from Rome, such as the now-infamous Dominus Iesus, haven't been written by him. JP2 has, however, signed off on all the major documents, including Dominus Iesus.

Pluralism comes in all shapes and sizes. There isn't a single pluralism, nor is there a single, agreed-upon typology of pluralisms. I've found Kate McCarthy's typology to be a great way to understand the two major pluralistic trends. According to her, these are convergent pluralism and divergent (or nonconvergent) pluralism.

Convergent pluralism usually takes a common-essence approach to the problem of religious diversity: all (the major) religious traditions share some common core or essence, some basic factor that unites them either in terms of their views of absolute reality or their views of salvation (or both). The most common metaphor for this is a single mountain: many different paths lead to the same summit (whether that summit be ultimate reality or salvation or both).

Divergent pluralism is a critical response to the above. Stephen Kaplan puts it succinctly in his book's title: different paths, different summits. Perhaps there are multiple ultimate realities. Perhaps there are multiple salvations. Whereas convergent pluralism isn't pluralistic about ultimate reality or salvation, divergent pluralism is willing to imagine something much less tidy, with different practices leading to different ends.

[NB: re: Dr. Vallicella's speculation about my own stance: I don't know whether I'd call myself a divergent pluralist. What bothers me about the divergent pluralist position, especially as laid out in Heim's work, is how it perhaps over-reifies specific traditions and seems to assume a "never the twain shall meet" dynamic. I'm also bothered by the ontological messiness of divergent pluralist models, which fly in the face of common sense: the constant evidence of our senses is that we all inhabit a single objective reality, despite the fact that we're "trapped inside" our all-too-subjective skulls. When the very theistic Muslim passes the basketball to his advaitic Hindu teammate, just how many universes is the ball passing through to reach the Hindu? To me, the simplest answer is: one and only one-- a notion that's strongly implied, I think, by the hegemonic, universalistic nature of most of the great religious traditions' truth claims. Strangely enough, I have the feeling that science is going to answer crucial ontological questions long before the various religions will.]

The above three-fold typology of exclusivism-inclusivism-pluralism took shape in the late 1970s and early 1980s, thanks mainly to thinkers like Alan Race and John Hick. The typology was originally intended to reflect Christian attitudes toward other religions. Whether it works well as a map of other traditions' attitudes is debatable. One interesting objection to the typology comes from one of my old profs, the late Father William Cenkner of Catholic University: "I am, within myself, simultaneously an exclusivist, inclusivist, and pluralist" depending on what aspect of religion we're talking about. All this means that the typology should be used with caution, or thrown out entirely if it proves completely unworkable in the future. I use it in my blog because, as typologies go, it's fairly clear, and while I'm cautious in how it applies to non-Christian traditions, I think it does make the religious landscape a bit more intelligible.

[more terms to follow; stay tuned]

Possibly-relevant note: Nothing screams RELIGION STUDENT like a freaky horned demon head. Go buy it.

UPDATE: Objective confirmation that I'm sesquipedalian.

CENSORSHIP UPDATE: The usual suspects are still blocked at my place of employment.


1 comment:

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