Friday, February 24, 2012

Postfoundational Pluralism: Beyond Traditional Inclusivism & Pluralism?

In this post, I want to consider the issue of religious pluralism and begin to sketch a way beyond the usual options with a model I'm calling "postfoundational pluralism."  In a nutshell, this is the attempt to hold together confessional inclusivism with a qualified form of epistemic pluralism.

To begin, there are many ways of responding to the reality of religious pluralism from a theological perspective. Paul Knitter's book Introducing Theologies of Religion is a great place to gain familiarity with this field of study.  Although the categories are problematic in some ways, the three basic responses to religious pluralism are:

1) Exclusivism/Replacement: 'the one replaces the many' - i.e., salvation through Christ only available through the Christian religion, and/or the absolute self-revelation of God in Christ means all religion is false.  This is the typical evangelical position and it can include everything from fundamentalism to a kind of universalism such as that of Karl Barth (who claimed, paradoxically, that Christianity is the one true religion because it is the only religion that knows it is a false religion - that is, all 'religion' is false because revelation is absolute in Christ).

2) Inclusivism/Fulfillment: 'the one fulfills the many' - i.e., salvation through Christ possible through many religions.  Basically the idea is that Christ can save persons through the means of non-Christian traditions because they contain partial truths, perhaps even truths lacking in Christianity.  A classic version of this perspective is Catholic theologian Karl Rahner who said that persons of other religions may be legitimately understood as 'anonymous Christians.'  Note that this does not necessarily entail universalism.

3) Pluralism: 'many ways and many norms' - i.e., Christ for Christians, Torah for Jews, Nirvana for Buddhists, etc.  This is popularly articulated as 'many ways up the same mountain.'  It typically involves relativizing the respective truth claims of the religions such that they all point more or less in the same direction - towards 'the Real', to use John Hick's term.  But there are a number of versions of pluralism and a whole variety of theological responses that do not fit into any of these categories.  I have blogged about S. Mark Heim's confessional pluralism before and am very sympathetic with it.

In a follow-up post later this weekend, I want to discuss an aspect of John Cobb and David Ray Griffin's pluralism, which like Heim's pluralism, stands in an interesting space between inclusivism and pluralism - the broad space that is occupied by postfoundational pluralism as well, which I argue is the most defensible perspective in theology of religions.  All perspectives inevitably are inclusivist to a greater or lesser degree - including those pluralists like Hick (see Heim's argument on this point in his excellent book Salvations: Truth and Difference in Religion [especially chapter 4]).  In liberal and conservative forms, religions make truth claims that are not always compatible with others.  They may even allow for multiple ultimates, as in Cobb, Griffin, and Heim.  Even so, they finally stand within a particular tradition of sorts and thus continue to make claims of universal significance: about the Christ-event in the case of Cobb/Griffin, about the Trinity in the case of Heim, and about the Real in the case of Hick.  All four arguably hold to different types of inclusivism, even though they might label it "pluralism."  This is ultimately misleading, even if one has multiple ultimates based on process metaphysics (Cobb/Griffin) or the social Trinity (Heim).  On the one hand, these are radically open forms of inclusivism in the broadest sense.  On the other hand, they need to be placed in tension through a consideration of epistemology, especially considering the particular locations of all who make any sort of truth claims.

In other words, on the 'pluralist pole' of this position, the relativity of the religious traditions as largely (but not totally) incommensurable interpretive communities is recognized and even embraced as an inescapable reality.  We are shaped by traditions, and with them, the language and doctrines of that tradition that tend to reinforce the experiences associated with it (e.g., Christian experiences of the risen Christ, sanctification, spiritual gifts, etc.).  This need not mean that we retreat into these interpretive communities as many post-liberal theologians do, thereby largely isolating their faith from being falsified, challenged, or internally transformed through sustained engagement with other religions.  Through this process of interreligious exchange, one may find oneself only somewhat changed in terms of religious beliefs, but one may also discover something much deeper - perhaps approaching a kind of dual-religious belonging in some cases (see Francis Clooney's book Comparative Theology: Deep Learning Across Religious Borders for a discussion of this from a Catholic Christian who has been deeply transformed by his sustained intellectual and experiential encounter with Hinduism).

But on the 'inclusivist pole' of this position, we also recognize that there is no strong reason why one's particular Christian experiences, so long as they remain sufficiently convincing, reasonable, and authentic to the believer, would not provide one with the basis to make actual religious truth claims - with a great deal of humility, to be sure, but truth claims that may (will) conflict with others.  Again, there is simply no way around this situation, regardless of whether you are liberal or conservative.

As post-foundationalist philosophers like Philip Clayton, F. LeRon Shults, and J. Wentzel van Huysteen also point out, both religion and science are on the same general epistemic level in that they are both based on interpreted experience: "we relate to our world epistemically only through the mediation of interpreted experience, and in this sense it may be said that theology and the various sciences offer alternative [not necessarily conflicting] interpretations of our experience." (Huysteen, Essays in Postfoundationalist Theology, 15)

This implies that, just as the scientific community makes truth claims of universal significance based on always-already interpreted experience, so religions make truth claims on the same general epistemic grounds: "epistemologically speaking, there is nothing unique about religious beliefs." (47)  This then "reveals the commited nature of all rational thought, and thus the fiduciary rootedness of all rationality...the theory ladenness of all data in the sciences therefore parallels the interpreted nature of all religious experience." (44-45)   In the science/religion debate between these different interpretive communities, this reality calls for rigorous interdisciplinary work and between the many religions it calls for open and serious dialogue.  For Christian theology, such a post-foundationlist framework demands "a relentless questioning of our uncritically held crypto-foundationalist assumptions.  This should allow a free and critical exploration of the experiential and interpretive roots of all our beliefs, even (maybe especially) in matters of faith, religious commitment, and theological reflection." (4)

Such is the inescapable reality of being human.  Again, just because others do not share the same religious experiences does not necessarily mean that one must stop believing certain things, such as the universal significance of Christ or the ultimate truth of the Buddha's teachings.  It might be frustrating that others cannot 'see' or experience what one does that inclines one to hold certain religious beliefs, and one must recognize the relativity involved here, including the lack of definitive evidence or arguments that would compel someone outside one's tradition to agree.  But it does not logically follow that one must reject one's beliefs just because they are not accepted by all others, precisely because of the starting point for all claims to truth, religious or otherwise, through interpreted experience.  Our experience is, in the final analysis, the only source of making any claims to truth, and these experiences are in turn mediated through particular traditions.  This makes access to such religious experience difficult but not impossible for those outside the tradition. So if one genuinely experiences Christ as being of universal significance, despite such a claim being in competition with other religious truth claims, one may in humility believe this to be actually true - but again, with the 'pluralist pole' in dialectical tension with this 'inclusivist pole.'  Philip Clayton argues this basic point: "If my own experience leads me to interpret the [ultimate reality] in a way that conflicts with the interpretations of those with difference experiences, I should acknowledge that the community of religious inquirers has no reason to prefer my theory to theirs.  But it doesn't follow that I have a rational duty to stop believing in the reality I think my experience enables me to see." (Clayton/Knapp, The Predicament of Belief, 77)

Is this overall perspective on pluralism something generally held by religious persons?  Obviously not.  But in a postmodern age, if we want to avoid relativism and move beyond foundationalism, this postfoundational pluralism seems to me to be the most coherent option for persons of faith.

1 comment:

  1. If you are interested in some new ideas on religious pluralism in relation to the Trinity, please check out my website at, and give me your thoughts on improving content and presentation.

    My thesis is that an abstract version of the Trinity could be Christianity’s answer to the world need for a framework of pluralistic theology.

    In a constructive worldview: east, west, and far-east religions present a threefold understanding of One God manifest primarily in Muslim and Hebrew intuition of the Deity Absolute, Christian and Krishnan Hindu conception of the Universe Absolute Supreme Being; and Shaivite Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist apprehension of the Destroyer (meaning also Consummator), Unconditioned Absolute, or Spirit of All That Is and is not. Together with their variations and combinations in other major religions, these religious ideas reflect and express our collective understanding of God, in an expanded concept of the Holy Trinity.

    The Trinity Absolute is portrayed in the logic of world religions, as follows:

    1. Muslims and Jews may be said to worship only the first person of the Trinity, i.e. the existential Deity Absolute Creator, known as Allah or Yhwh, Abba or Father (as Jesus called him), Brahma, and other names; represented by Gabriel (Executive Archangel), Muhammad and Moses (mighty messenger prophets), and others.

    2. Christians and Krishnan Hindus may be said to worship the first person through a second person, i.e. the experiential Universe or "Universal” Absolute Supreme Being (Allsoul or Supersoul), called Son/Christ or Vishnu/Krishna; represented by Michael (Supreme Archangel), Jesus (teacher and savior of souls), and others. The Allsoul is that gestalt of personal human consciousness, which we expect will be the "body of Christ" (Mahdi, Messiah, Kalki or Maitreya) in the second coming – personified in history by Muhammad, Jesus Christ, Buddha (9th incarnation of Vishnu), and others.

    3. Shaivite Hindus, Buddhists, and Confucian-Taoists seem to venerate the synthesis of the first and second persons in a third person or appearance, ie. the Destiny Consummator of ultimate reality – unqualified Nirvana consciousness – associative Tao of All That Is – the absonite* Unconditioned Absolute Spirit “Synthesis of Source and Synthesis,”** who/which is logically expected to be Allah/Abba/Brahma glorified in and by union with the Supreme Being – represented in religions by Gabriel, Michael, and other Archangels, Mahadevas, Spiritpersons, etc., who may be included within the mysterious Holy Ghost.

    Other strains of religion seem to be psychological variations on the third person, or possibly combinations and permutations of the members of the Trinity – all just different personality perspectives on the Same God. Taken together, the world’s major religions give us at least two insights into the first person of this thrice-personal One God, two perceptions of the second person, and at least three glimpses of the third.

    * The ever-mysterious Holy Ghost or Unconditioned Spirit is neither absolutely infinite, nor absolutely finite, but absonite; meaning neither existential nor experiential, but their ultimate consummation; neither fully ideal nor totally real, but a middle path and grand synthesis of the superconscious and the conscious, in consciousness of the unconscious.

    ** This conception is so strong because somewhat as the Absonite Spirit is a synthesis of the spirit of the Absolute and the spirit of the Supreme, so it would seem that the evolving Supreme Being may himself also be a synthesis or “gestalt” of humanity with itself, in an Almighty Universe Allperson or Supersoul. Thus ultimately, the Absonite is their Unconditioned Absolute Coordinate Identity – the Spirit Synthesis of Source and Synthesis – the metaphysical Destiny Consummator of All That Is.

    For more details, please see:

    Samuel Stuart Maynes