Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Christian pluralism?

"Christian pluralism" sounds almost like a contradiction in terms, but Lee over at A Thinking Reed has written a post about a book he's just read: Marjorie Suchocki's Divinity and Diversity: A Christian Affirmation of Religious Pluralism. Sounds like an interesting work. Lee's post is equally interesting, and this part caught my eye:

What I like about Suchocki’s position is that, unlike some pluralists, she doesn’t try to assume a “view from nowhere”, outside of any particular tradition. Too often, this results in a kind of lowest-common-denominator theology or a covert attempt to impose the standards of one tradition on others without acknowledging it.

I sympathize, to some extent, with Lee's chariness regarding the "view from nowhere" approach. Very often, this approach is emblematized by the Jain metaphor of the blind men and the elephant: each man stands by a certain part of the elephant and perceives the animal to be, respectively, a wall, a rope, a tree trunk, etc. The metaphor has been criticized by the likes of S. Mark Heim, who notes that, in order for the story to work, we have to assume the presence of an all-seeing observer who stands apart and can see the limitations of the blind men at a glance. Heim feels that the metaphor fails to capture the actual human situation: there is no one who isn't blind, since we are all "horizoned," i.e., bounded and limited, in our apprehension of the world.

Because I still have one foot in John Hick's camp (and Hick is the quintessential "convergent" pluralist), I wrote a response to Heim's position some years back, addressing the elephant metaphor. I said in part:

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.

So while I sympathize with the idea that the "view from nowhere" can be a dangerous approach to religious diversity, I don't really see it in evidence among the bigwigs in such discussions.

I also have to wonder, from Lee's post, whether Suchocki (pronounced "Sue Hockey," in case you were curious; her name was tossed around a lot during my MA program, especially during a course on feminist christology) isn't actually advocating something closer to inclusivism than to pluralism. If God resides at the most fundamental level of her pluralistic paradigm, then she's as guilty of funneling other religions through her perspective as other inclusivists are. Then again, the Amazon.com review has this to say about Suchocki's perspective:

In this insightful and irenic work, Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki demonstrates that Christians need not ignore, nor even compromise, the teachings of the gospel in order to accept and rejoice in religious pluralism. She argues that the Christian doctrines of creation, incarnation, the image of God, and the reign of God make the diversity of religions necessary. Without such diversity the rich and deep community of humanity that is the goal of the Christian gospel cannot be realized. Along the way Suchocki rejects the exclusivist claim that there can be no relationship with God apart from the church, and the inclusivist idea that Christianity is the highest expression of the search for God, with other religions possessing in part that which Christians possess in full. She argues instead for a pluralist position, insisting on a full recognition of the distinctive gifts that all of the religious traditions bring to the human table.

This seems to place her rather close to Paul Knitter on the pluralistic spectrum. Knitter, a Catholic thinker (Suchocki is Methodist), has long advocated a sort of "theocentric" pluralism in which theos can be interpreted more broadly than just "God of the Abrahamic faiths." While I remain unconvinced that Knitter has truly stepped outside the Magisterium (in fact, he's written a book titled Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian about how his interreligious experiences have helped confirm and reinforce his Christian beliefs), I appreciate his openness to the reinterpretive possibilities inherent in any honest dialogue.

I've put Suchocki's book on my Amazon Wish List as a reminder that I need to grab it and read it. Religious diversity is a burgeoning field of study; as I noted a while back, Georgetown University now offers a doctoral degree in the subject. I remain sorely tempted by GU's program. In the meantime, my thanks to Lee for bringing this book to my attention.



Lee said...

Hey Kevin - Great post and great questions. I think you pinpoint an ambiguity in Suchocki's position--is she a bona fide pluralist or a modified inclusivist? Or maybe she resides where these two positions begin to shade into one another? She seems to me to be somewhat ambivalent about the status of Christian truth-claims. For instance, she affirms God's existence, and says that purportedly atheistic traditions (e.g., certain forms of Buddhism) are responding to God. That sounds like inclusivism. On the other hand, she talks about the conceptual schemes of the various traditions growing out of the soil of an immanent experience of ultimate reality, which sounds more straightforwardly pluralist. I guess the question is, if push comes to shove, does she come down as a bona fide theist, or is she more of a constructivist in the Hickian vein? I don't think it's entirely clear.

Anonymous said...

A couple of things, minor but that tickled my brain in response to post and comment. One, it struck me that your main focus seems to be on deciding what kind of pluralist Suchocki is, rather than the ideas themselves. Not that you ignored the latter--but it seems to be important to you to categorize her. I'm not sure there is a "so what" to this, but I thought it was interesting.

Second, a fundamental puzzle for anyone who is serious about diversity of thought in general is how to deal with the paradox of simultaneously believing one's own thought or opinion about something, and fully affirming and respecting that others' may also be true though different from one's own. The elephant metaphor is useful for this, whether or not it includes the sighted observer off to the side; the reality of the elephant is still there, still diverse, and we each still have our grasp only on some part of it. I may be grasping only the tail, but nonetheless my grasp is "true" in some sense, and so is your grasp of the ear. We inevitably try to "put it all together", to grasp the whole, and (I think) we inevitably fail. Even the metaphoric sighted observer off to one side has a limited perspective on the whole. But the effort is worth it, we expand our understanding in the process. ("I'm sticking with my tail, it has an interesting texture and this puzzling bit of brush on the end, but I find your desctiption of the ear fascinating.") And if anyone ever DID manage to figure it all out, what then? What a conversation stopper THAT would be!