Monday, September 27, 2004

wrestling with S. Mark Heim

S. Mark Heim's Salvations: Truth and Difference in Religion should be required reading for people desirous of a critical survey of efforts by pluralistic thinkers. Heim, an evangelical Protestant, is a religious conservative who advocates a form of pluralism based on Nicholas Rescher's notion of "orientational pluralism."

[NB: Visit the "recurrent terms" links near the bottom my sidebar for some background on Heim and his paradigm. That section of the sidebar also has plenty more links to pieces I've written on the issue of religious pluralism, including a review of Salvations.]

I've been wrestling with Heim for a while now, because my own sympathies are generally in line with John Hick's more classically convergent pluralist project.

Heim breaks with Hick because he feels that Hick's pluralism isn't pluralistic enough; indeed, Heim feels Hick is promoting a false pluralism-- a kind of crypto-inclusivism: Hick's notion of the Real, and his conception of "salvation/liberation" are devoid of any meaningful content, desiccated notions with no actual appeal to religious adherents of any tradition. Hick's paradigm is a metatheory into which the other religions must be fitted, which is the same move made by inclusivists in the specific religious traditions.

A while ago, I realized that Heim's conservative response to the religiously liberal Hick has analogues in the political realm. Just as political conservatives are wary of utopianism and other forms of institutionalized idealism (e.g., transnational progressivism, a kind of nation-superseding globalism that envisions all nations under a single, globally approved authority), Heim is pointing out that convergent pluralistic paradigms lose touch with reality by attempting to foist a new meta-paradigm onto everyone, often at the expense of the appreciation of real difference.

Heim critiques three major pluralistic thinkers in his book: John Hick, Wilfred Cantwell Smith, and Paul Knitter. He accuses all three of creating paradigms that are dishonest because they fail to acknowledge their origins, i.e, that they arise from and are informed by the world of Western liberal thought. Somewhat ironically for a conservative, Heim relies on a postmodernist argument to make his point, which is essentially that there can be no neutral standpoint from which to create the paradigms these pluralists have created.

It's fortunate that I can tie my previous post on PoMo (Zen and Postmodernism) to this one, because Heim's postmodernist move is itself subject to critique.

As I noted in that post, PoMo contends that all sweeping claims originate from specific historical contexts. PoMo declares that there are no totalizing metanarratives: the formation and dissemination of such narratives, which arise from specific cultural historical/contexts, is oppressive. There is some truth to this, but the PoMoer's dramatic insistence on their non-totalizing claim is itself a totalizing metanarrative, which makes the PoMo stance more than a little hypocritical. What's worse: Heim, a religious conservative, is making convenient use of a PoMo argument to preserve his own ability to remain religiously conservative. While I've gradually come to agree with much of what Heim writes in Salvations, I think that, overall, his tactics stink.

Having been a regular reader of Dr. Vallicella's blog for some time now, I've become aware that Western philosophy speaks of something called the genetic fallacy. The term "genetic" refers to the genesis, i.e., the origin, of something. The basic idea is that a claim is not logically linked to where the claim came from. For example: if a crazy person says, "The sun is shining right now!", the fact that he's crazy doesn't automatically make him wrong. If I look up at the sky and see that the sun is in fact shining, then the claim is correct, whether the crazy man is aware of this or not. The claim isn't linked to where it came from. To say otherwise is to commit the genetic fallacy.

Heim's move-- consistent in this case with his PoMo bedfellows-- is, I think, to commit a grandiose version of the genetic fallacy: pluralistic hypotheses arise from Western liberal academe, and therefore are wrong because linked to a certain historico-cultural situation. Also, like his PoMo bedfellows, Heim can't avoid making his own totalizing claims. Here he is in his own words:

An overworked image in discussion of religious pluralism is that of several blind persons examining an elephant. One, feeling the trunk, believes it to be a snake. Another, feeling the leg, believes it to be a tree. Yet another, touching the elephant's flank, insists it is a wall. The story classically illustrates the way apparently conflicting solutions stem from various limited perspectives on the same reality. The story of course is told from the point of view of the sighted person among the blind. But that assumed perspective is plainly untenable. The claim to be sighted in the world of the religiously blind cannot be rationally confirmed; there is no perspective "above" the faiths and unfaiths in that sense.

We are all in a similar position. Here there is a very real parity among the adherents of all faiths and none. We each have our own religious experience, which is continuous for us with the media of that experience. We are also each able to conceive and even to stress the distinction between that which we encounter in our religious experience and the means through which we come to the encounter or interpret it....

The parable's choice of an elephant as the object makes it laughably obvious that the blind persons could dispel their naive dogmas in a few moments, quickly accumulating all of each other's relevant experience of trunk, legs, and side, and then assimilating them to the same description. But the world is not an elephant. The parable would be more apt if we supposed we were speaking of a continent or a city, if we supposed that the blind persons themselves all came from continents and cultures of radically different types and times, and if we put ourselves not in the place of an omniscient observer but among the seekers. Exchange of experience is much more difficult in this context; a single life can gather only one very small thread of the whole. How one spends that life, in what modes of seeking, will inevitably affect what one finds and will shape how all other information is construed to form some integral version of the whole. We are not in the place of the sighted observer in the parable of the elephant. We cannot claim a "God's-eye view." We may, indeed we should, seek the most adequate reading of the world we can attain, based on the orientation through which we see it, our direct experience, and the most extensive integration possible of the warranted claims of others.

[emphasis added]

In the above quote*, I've highlighted Heim's totalizing claims, which run counter to the postmodernist move he's trying to make. While I would agree that we aren't privy to a God's-eye view of the world, I'd like to note a couple things.

1. The elephant analogy doesn't ascribe omniscience to the sighted person. Heim wants to claim that the meta-theoretical paradigms of religious pluralists are arrogating to themselves a God's-eye view. I don't believe this to be the case at all. They are, like the sighted man in the elephant analogy, simply at a remove from the immediate situation, and this is sufficient to provide superior insight. The sighted man is merely sighted, not all-seeing. His integrated perspective is objectively less blinkered than that of the blind men, which is the real point of the story.

2. Heim's attempt to link religious claims to historico-cultural circumstance, i.e., his advocacy of radical contextualization, neatly avoids the issue of the hegemonic truth claims that already emanate from the various religions. This is something I discussed in my very first major essay on religious pluralism on this blog:

As things stand, just about every "great" tradition pretends to some kind of universality. Most also include normative elements. Hick's personal battles, apart from the pluralism issue, revolve around stripping Christ of his normativity, because it's Christ's normativity-- "no man cometh before the Father but by me"-- that causes so much suffering on the interreligious level.


But in Pure Land Buddhism the name of the game is to get everyone motoring toward Sukhavati (and beyond, since Sukhavati isn't nirvana); in Mahayana thought, the bodhisattva is supposed to "save all beings from suffering." These are universalist ideas. That the nature of being is sunyatic, anityic, and dukkhic is indicative of Buddhism's own tendency toward normativity, because if you fail to see reality this way then you're simply delusional, chained to the Wheel. Every religion contains its own imperialism; adherents often cast aside humility and, even if they don't publicly acknowledge this, they think to themselves, "What a pity the other doesn't see the truth." It's what separates the ass from the cattle, the sheep from the goats. Kate McCarthy notes that many sympathetic non-Buddhists view Buddhism as being very open and inclusivistic, but she also notes wryly that "Buddhists don't budge on metaphysics."

I'm not sure that Heim has successfully reconciled the hegemonic claims of conservative (usually exclusivistic) religiosity with his orientational pluralistic paradigm. I don't see how he can have it both ways. Heim is a committed conservative Christian; as such, he must believe that the trinitarian filter through which he sees other faiths is normative. He must also believe that other, non-Christian religions are in error and that their members have to be brought into the Christian fold. I don't see how he can simultaneously claim that "no one has a God's-eye perspective," because certainly, this is not what any given religion claims: each claims to have grasped the ultimate truth about ultimate reality. As long as a committed Christian believes he's in the right and others are wrong, it matters little that he can recognize the possibility of a multiplicity of salvations. In actual practice-- in thought, word, and deed-- such a Christian is committed to rejecting this possibility.

Heim wants to discredit convergent pluralistic paradigms by declaring them merely perspectival and relative, but he simultaneously asserts that no objective judgements about such paradigms are possible. What if it's possible to develop a paradigm that does, in fact, reflect a greater religious truth than one known previously? I'm not suggesting that this is what pluralists like John Hick have actually done (in my opinion, they haven't), but what if? Can we flatly declare such an achievement to be impossible? Ironically, Heim employs a totalizing metanarrative to drive his anti-totalizing point home, thereby undermining his entire argument.

And that's why, despite my having edged closer to Heim on certain matters, I can't stand shoulder to shoulder with him. He's ably pointed out the very deep flaws in John Hick's more openly liberal Christian pluralistic paradigm, but he hasn't demonstrated that a conservative pluralistic solution to the problem is any more workable. I therefore continue to advocate a "groundless pluralism" that expresses itself-- however paradoxically-- as a nonphilosophical mutual inclusivism: a pluralism that's lived.

*With all due respect to Dr. Vallicella's recent post on the subject, the word "quote" can serve as a noun. Yes, I'm a barbarian. What's more, "to reference" is a legitimate verb! There, I said it. And now we all know: Kevin's going to hell.


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