Monday, December 20, 2010

reply to Addofio

At long last (and at least temporarily), the mental fog has cleared and I feel able to reply to those two comments I'd received a while back. I last referred to those comments here.

In this post, I'll deal with the first comment, which was from Addofio, regarding my post on Christian pluralism:

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!


Good points. But if the categories are already in existence, then why reinvent the wheel? This isn't to say that preexisting categories should be followed in a slavish and unquestioning manner; sometimes there's benefit in altering or ignoring them. At the same time, though, it would be hard to discuss or understand anything without some frame of reference, and since the categories in question have been discussed at various points on this blog, I felt little need to rehash all the content behind the categories-- what it means to be a pluralist or inclusivist or exclusivist, for example. Besides, I think Lee did a fine job of highlighting the content of Suchocki's thought in his own post.

I imagine that, had I wanted to engage Lee and Suchocki more thoroughly, I would have spent time going over the content of Suchocki's position in my post. As things were, I discussed only the content that leaped out at me:

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.

Lee's reading of Suchocki was that she was trying to offer a type of pluralism that was rooted in Christian belief, instead of taking the sort of approach associated with John Hick: one that requires a believer to unplug various elements of personal belief before embracing his pluralistic paradigm. Quite a few Christians since 1989 (when Hick's An Interpretation of Religion first appeared and presented his "pluralistic hypothesis" to the world) have devoted time and energy to rescuing Christianity from Hick's scalpel.

Since my own blog post was a response to Lee's post and not an in-depth response to Suchocki's work, I wasn't able to delve much deeper than that, content-wise.

As for the second part of Addofio's comment-- I'm generally in agreement. Our perspectives are inevitably "horizoned," so we all have little choice but to proceed from where we stand. S. Mark Heim hammers this point home quite effectively in his Salvations: Truth and Difference in Religion. But he runs up against the very paradox that Addofio highlights in her comment-- the paradox of advocating one's own perspective-rooted view while simultaneously affirming the legitimacy of the other's perspective-- and, in my opinion, fails to transcend the paradox. Heim wants his orientational pluralism (the term and concept come from Nicholas Rescher's The Strife of Systems, which I now own thanks to reader Hahna) to allow him simultaneously to affirm the supremacy of his Christian belief while also acknowledging the rationality of the other's belief. It's a pluralistic paradigm that's helpful in generating a feeling of tolerance, but as far as I'm concerned it's also a hopeless metaphysical mess, as most forms of "divergent" pluralism are: just how many ultimate realities are there? At best, Heim's pluralism allows him to say to a Hindu, "You're wrong about ultimate reality, but I think that you've reached your conclusions in a legitimately rational manner." This, then, is where Heim diverges from Addofio's reading of the elephant story, and once again I'll submit the complaint I submitted years ago about Heim's stance: he hasn't really bothered with the question of the hegemonic nature of truth claims about ultimate reality.

Which brings us back to Hick and "convergent" pluralism. Hick would have no problem with the elephant story, or with Addofio's view that each blind man is somehow "right" in his experience of the elephant, because Hick's view of the great religious traditions is that each one is legitimately experiencing a single* ultimate reality, each from a different perspective marked by different historico-cultural filters. One single elephant; many approaches to it, resulting in many legitimately different experiences of it.

I tend to think that the sighted man represents the wisdom that comes of a broad historical perspective. Only by going through the deliberate act of synchronic and diachronic cross-comparison can we discover meaningful commonalities between and among religious traditions, and move from such insights to larger theories about ultimate reality and human responses to it. Something like that wisdom must already have existed in ancient times, when this story was first told. With the advent of cities and trade routes, people were bound to realize that other worldviews than their own were out there, making the elephant analogy possible to those who tended to view things from a somewhat removed perspective.

Of course, Addofio points out that even the sighted man in the story can see the elephant only from where he's standing. People with broad historical outlooks are in a similar boat: they may see a lot, but they still see the world from a particular perch; they have biases and preconceptions arising from where they find themselves, historically and culturally. Heim takes this to mean that, in reality, we're all blind men and there are no sighted men: we've all got perspectives, so we're all horizoned in the same way. That's precisely what I deny. I think some of us are "big thinkers," and have the ability to take a wider view than others who are more entrenched in specificity and detail-- and that the wider view legitimately brings in "more" reality than does the narrower view. I hope I'm not misreading Addofio when I say that I agree with her that the task before us is how to reconcile the wide and narrow views: they each provide insights that the other can't, but are so often taken to be contradictory, when in fact they aren't. We may fail in this reconciliation, but the effort of reconciliation is itself worthwhile.

*Hick's contention is actually more subtle than this, and people who attack his paradigm generally ignore this subtlety. Because the Real-- Hick's label for ultimate reality, in both its experienced (phenomenal) and un-experienceable (noumenal, Real-in-itself) forms-- is ineffable, it can't even be said to be numerically singular. Numbers fall into the realm of categories and dualism: to say something is one is to say that it has a number, and that's where the dualism is visible: one means "1 in opposition to 2, 3, 4, etc." If the Real is ineffable, categorically omnitranscendent, then it's immune even to numerical categorization. (And were we to take this line of thinking to its conclusion, we'd realize that even saying "The Real is categorically omnitranscendent" is a label that, in the face of the Real, would need to fall away.)

Unfortunately, Hick himself has been ambivalent, in his writings, as to how to treat the Real. Very often, he treats it as a numerically singular entity, and many of his arguments appear to hinge on that conceptualization, since he's primarily arguing that the great religious traditions are all somehow oriented toward it. But at other moments, such as in his A Christian Theology of Religions, he falls back on the Real's ineffability. In the end, the ambiguity of Hick's central concept is at once a major flaw in and the saving grace for his paradigm, and it's probably why he's still discussed and attacked even today.


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