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.
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.
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.
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.
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.