Friday, September 03, 2004

recurrent terms (3): three pluralistic models

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.

John Hick's pluralistic hypothesis

John Hick's 1989 An Interpretation of Religion is the texte de base for the classical form of convergent pluralism. Hick's basic thesis is that the major post-axial traditions (and, possibly, other traditions) are culturally mediated responses to ultimate reality, which Hick names the Real. Salvation involves a turn from self-centeredness to Reality-centeredness, an opening to a "limitessly better possibility." The Absolute as conceived in various traditions will primarily take the form of personae or impersonae, i.e., personal or impersonal conceptions (if "conception" is the right word) of the Real. These conceptions aren't to be confused with the Real. Hick's model has been styled "neo-Kantian" because he maps the Real out as "the Real an sich" (i.e., the Real in itself) and "the Real as experienced," corresponding to Kant's distinction between noumenon and phenomenon. This is also congruent with advaita vedanta conceptions of ultimate reality, in which we hear of nirguna brahman and saguna brahman: brahman without qualities and brahman with qualities.

Hick's model, perhaps because it represents the classical convergent pluralist position, has come under fire from all angles: from exclusivists, inclusivists, and even (or especially?) fellow pluralists. Despite all this, the model endures. I think it's withstood attack for two primary reasons:

(1) The idea Hick is putting forward is compelling, and articulates a gut-level intuition many of us have: that it's ridiculous to condemn (or arrogantly view as "in error") most of the world simply because others don't follow our particular path, and that we all inhabit the same reality.

(2) Hick's own vagueness and inconsistency about the nature of the Real is, strangely, the source of the model's rigor. Hick speaks, at times, of a "single Real" and denigrates the notion of multiple ultimates as being in defiance of common sense. At other times, Hick speaks of the Real an sich as ineffable and therefore indefinable even in terms of number. If the Real an sich is truly beyond dualism (like the Hindu notion of "One without a second"), then human conceptions of number can't apply to it. Critics reply that Hick's Real, if truly the height of ineffability, has no cognitive content. How can we even talk about it? My feeling is that, even if the Real can't be talked about, this doesn't mean it doesn't exist. The Real that can be talked about is not the Real an sich. The strength of Hick's Real derives from its ineffability.

Hick's 1995 A Christian Theology of Religions begins with a one-chapter review of his pluralistic hypothesis. The rest of the book is devoted to replying to critiques that had arisen since 1989. This is a crucial companion volume to the 1989 work. Hick has written much on pluralism (and a host of other subjects) since 1995.

S. Mark Heim's orientational pluralism

Mark Heim lays out his own pluralistic proposal in his 1995 Salvations: Truth and Difference in Religion. He begins his book with several chapters that mete out blistering critiques of John Hick, Wilfred Cantwell Smith, and Paul Knitter, each of whom offers a pluralistic vision Heim finds lacking.

Heim's point is that these thinkers are pluralists in name only: their pluralism might hold at a superficial level but it disappears at the deep level. Hick's notion of the Real, and his related notion of "salvation/liberation" seem, to Heim, to give the lie to Hick's self-professed pluralism.

Heim takes his cue, metaphysically, from the work of philosopher Nicholas Rescher, from whom Heim borrows the idea of orientational pluralism. In this schema, perspectives are "one to a customer," and everybody's got one. One position is "rationally appropriate from a given perspective." Heim, an evangelical Protestant, takes a dim view of Hick's attempt at deconstructing key christological notions in order to make Christianity less exclusivistic. Instead, Heim argues that it's both right and proper to argue strongly for the superiority of one's own position, while recognizing that others will, for their own reasons, do the same. For Heim this means that a trinitarian Christian should remain true to his trinitarianism and seek pluralistic solutions that don't involve potentially crippling theological sacrifices.

Heim offers us an analogy from travel to make his orientational pluralism easier to visualize. Imagine you have to go from Washington, DC to Honolulu, HI. Some methods will be objectively better than other methods for realizing this goal (Boeing 747 as opposed to a balsa raft, for example). Other methods will be objectively wrong (e.g., trying to cross the ocean on the back of a kitten). If your goal is to go from Alexandria, VA to Raleigh, NC, however, you'll have to adopt a different mode of travel than what works for the DC-Honolulu trip. In this sense, the way and the goal are intimately tied to each other. Details matter, and they aren't mere details. Not only that, but as the analogy implies, different people can have different starting points and different destinations.

The analogy further implies that the nature of those destinations will be different in important respects. Raleigh isn't the same as Honolulu. Calling both cities by the generic term "destination," and then arguing that they amount to the same thing, is a disrespectful whitewashing of differences, in Heim's opinion (see my "recurrent terms (1)" for a critical remark re: Heim's model). Heim is, I think, suggesting that a true pluralism is pluralistic "all the way down."

Stephen Kaplan's holographic pluralism

Stephen Kaplan's 2002 Different Paths, Different Summits lays out a pluralistic model based on the work of scientist-thinker David Bohm (cf. his Wholeness and the Implicate Order), who was working on a holographic notion of reality before his death. Kaplan is at pains to explain that his holographic model isn't meant to apply scientifically to the physical cosmos, as Bohm's does; the purpose of Kaplan's model is to offer a way to understand how different religious paths can lead to different summits-- i.e., different ultimate realities, each as ultimate as the other.

Early on, Kaplan justifies his project by defending the use of models. He responds to Raimondo Panikkar's contention that pluralistic models will always fail (basically by saying, "mine won't"), then moves into a discussion of holography, models, analogies, constructivist epistemology, and three major religious approaches: "monistic nondualism," "process nondualism," and "theistic dualism" as they relate to the holographic model.

At this point I need to inject a quote from a recent post by Dr. Vallicella, which is very relevant to Kaplan's (and other divergent pluralists') project. Dr. Vallicella writes:

Suppose I go to the supermarket to buy fruit. I can't buy fruit without buying apples or oranges or pears or kiwis or .... Fruit in general is simply not to be had. Kim appears to be suggesting that salvation in general is not to be had, that only particular forms of salvation are to be had, so that, for example, entry into Nibbana is entirely distinct from the Beatific Vision. But this is not clear. Why can't salvation/liberation be like a room into which many doors open? Different religions, different doors, but the same room. Or is this too superficial an analogy?

Kaplan's chapter on the irreducible diversity of mystical experience is a rejection of the idea that the various traditions are like many doors leading into the same room. I suspect that something like this rejection is what motivates other divergent pluralists to claim that there are many salvations, and quite possibly many ultimate realities. In the chapter in question, Kaplan relies on insights from constructivist epistemology to establish the irreducibility of the diversity of mystical experience. He seems to be implying that this irreducibility is a function of the nature of reality itself-- reality is plural, and holographically so. Whether Kaplan successfully leaps from epistemological pluralism to ontological pluralism is a matter for further discussion.

Kaplan's holographic model is one in which reality is composed of implicate and explicate orders, just as a hologram is. In holography, the interference patterns on the surface of a piece of holographic film represent the implicate order. These interference patterns, scattered evenly over the film's surface, look nothing like the image they project. The implicate order then stands, in Kaplan's analogy, for nonduality, oneness, wholeness, etc.

The image (or images) projected from the holographic film's surface constitute the explicate order. Holographic film can record multiple images on a single surface (viewable when the film is placed at different angles); in the same way, reality might "enfold" multiple explicate orders-- theistic, nontheistic, etc. Kaplan contends (and this is extremely important) that, in his model, neither order is logically prior to the other.

[NB: Kaplan's model openly acknowledges that there are multiple explicate orders, but it also accepts the possibility that there can be more than one implicate order.]

Holograms have another interesting property: when you cut one into pieces, each piece reproduces the entire image. Kaplan seizes on this in his analogy: the parts all articulate the whole. To me, this is reminiscent of certain Taoists who contended that studying a single aspect of the Tao is sufficient for understanding all the Tao.

Kaplan's overall argument isn't so different from the old Jain story of the blind men feeling different parts of an elephant and concluding different, partially true things about it. He's saying that we each approach holographic reality from different angles, perceiving it and "realizing" it in different ways. Through the various religions, one can learn the "nature of reality," but not "all the natures of reality." Adopting a specific approach leads to a specific salvation. Practice implies all the following: choice, commitment, and destination. But the ultimate realities at the end of each path are all equally ultimate. Democracy is, Kaplan claims, "enshrined" in the nature of the cosmos.

Kaplan is aware that his model creates certain problems while eliminating others. For example: how can one deal with the logically contradictory notion that one both has and doesn't have an immortal soul? To wit: what if a person switches religions, going from nontheistic philosophical Buddhism to theistic Islam? Has that person somehow "jumped the tracks," ontologically speaking, from one ontology to another? Kaplan's model advocates multiple ontologies within a single holographic metaphysic, but just how coherent is such a model? I'm assuming that Kaplan is pursuing the questions he's raised in Different Paths, Different Summits, and will be publishing a follow-up.

I've written plenty about pluralism on this blog. Please visit the near-bottom of my sidebar ("Sacred and Profane" section) and click away on whichever links strike your fancy.

More recurrent terms to come! Meantime, here are links to the previous entries:

recurrent terms (1)

recurrent terms (2)


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