Saturday, June 17, 2006

a "wow" moment in the consideration
of religious pluralism

Pluralist John Hick replies to prominent Christian theologian Gavin D'Costa in a 1997 paper here. One of the main complaints made about Hick's pluralism is that, as a hypothesis, it does not satisfactorily take into account the self-understandings of the members of various religious traditions. In fact, the complaint goes, Hick's hypothesis requires people to step back from the normativity of certain truth-claims made by their religions, to deny the universal hegemony of such claims.

Hick's paper is a specific response to D'Costa, and at one point Hick simultaneously deals with the accusation made against his pluralistic hypothesis while basically branding D'Costa a hypocrite. The relevant passage (paragraph breaks inserted for readability's sake):

Possibly the real heart of D'Costa's concern is that according to the pluralistic hypothesis the claim made in varying degrees by each of the great religions to embody the full and final truth, and to be in that respect uniquely superior to all other religions, has to be modified. Thus the pluralist theory denies an aspect of the self-understanding of each faith in so far as each sees itself as having the only fully authentic revelation or enlightenment. D'Costa is very critical of this.

But people who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones! Has it escaped D'Costa's notice that he also contradicts the self-understanding of every religion except his own? If Muslims or Hindus or Buddhists etc. think that their tradition has the final truth, D'Costa confidently holds that they are mistaken. His difference from a religious pluralist is that he regards his own tradition as the sole exception to the general principle that claims to be the one and only 'true' religion are mistaken!

But whilst the difference between religious pluralism and religious exclusivism is, in their logical structure, as narrow as this, there is still an important difference in their religious outlooks and practical outworkings.

This was written almost ten years ago, and I discovered it only tonight. While I found myself disagreeing somewhat with other parts of Hick's paper, I cheered this section, because it mirrors a sentiment I've expressed a few times on this blog regarding what, exactly, Hick has been trying to do. From my very first essay about 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. (Many Buddhists have at some point encountered the "But why can't you just accept that Christ died for your sins, and simply believe?" argument.)

Hick is bravely suggesting that, yes, scriptures and religious ideas that don't fit a wider-looking ethic need to be examined and thrown out, or at least reinterpreted. He is suggesting that we be conscious of each other, respectful of each other, open to change...

If you're up for a little philosophy of religion (and I apparently am, at 3:52am on Saturday morning), give Hick's paper, "The Possibility of Religious Pluralism," a read. Check my sidebar-- waaaaaaay down-- for more Hick- and pluralism-related links.


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