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.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Reflecting on Liberation & Process Theologies

In C. Robert Mesle’s Process Theology: A Basic Introduction, he shows how process theology can be developed in alignment with some of the major themes in liberation theology. A process theology of liberation is something that I have been interested in since there has been so little work done on the topic. Admittedly, Mesle only very briefly illustrates some of the ways in which process theology can support liberation thinking. Even so, his constructive approach in this book is compelling and helpful. The liberation themes that Mesle raises are all related to and grounded in the rejection of omnipotence in process thought (which I blogged about recently). As he rightly points out, while we should be careful not to overemphasize the cognitive, speculative, and theological at the expense of the practical, concrete, and ethical, “it is a fact that what we believe about God shapes our responses to [ethical] issues.”

Mesle persuasively shows how the logic of omnipotence tends to result in oppressive forms of religion. If God is all-powerful, it follows (at least in some forms of Christian theology) that God predestines individuals to their eternal fates and thus forces persons of other religions to suffer eternally. Taken to its logical conclusion, this kind of omnipotence easily becomes an excuse for violence against the religious other.  It can and has also led to the support of sexism and slavery.

Could it be that this image of an omnipotent God is a distorted projection of the powerful few on top of society to legitimize their authority and domination of the many? Whatever Paul meant in Romans 13:1-4 (and I tend to think a more nuanced reading shows that he is not attempting to legitimize any and every governmental authority), there is no doubt that it has been interpreted in conjunction with a theology of omnipotence to support the status quo in societies. As Mesle writes, it has been a tool for Christians and elites in power “for maintaining oppression.” In contrast to these views of conservative religion, process theology argues for a God who is unable to be used as a tool for legitimizing those on top who exercise power unilaterally, precisely because of the way it understands divine power as persuasive and non-interventionist. God cannot unilaterally determine, and therefore offer ideological support to any governing authority.

A God who suffers with the oppressed, as in process thought, is also a victim of every injustice and oppression at the hands of the powers that be. God never stands outside and above empires, placing the divine on the side of those on top and in authority, unaffected by the sufferings of those on the underside of history. As Whitehead famously wrote, God is “the fellow-sufferer who understands.” God is never simply on the side of the oppressor in this model. Furthermore, God not only experiences the pain and injustice of the victims in full, but also feels an even greater pain through the perfect knowledge of the good that could have been but that was tragically rejected for lesser possibilities.

Nevertheless, this understanding of God in process thought is of one who constantly works in every situation to liberate individuals from oppression and who cannot be identified with any existing social, political, or economic structures. Out of divine love and grace, the God of process theism continually calls individuals to cooperate in the work of liberation from unjust situations: “God’s primary avenue to liberation is through responsive human hearts. We can wait for supernatural miracles or we can roll up our sleeves with God and get to work.”

Friday, February 3, 2012

Resisting "Masculine Christianity": Elizabeth Johnson & Feminist Faith

I want to respond to Rachel Held Evan's call to men in the blogosphere to write a post on the current controversy surrounding John Piper and his "masculine Christianity" (read more about this here).  First of all, I want to say how much I appreciate what Rachel is doing to stand within her tradition as an evangelical feminist voice.  As influential pastors like Mark Driscoll and John Piper dig their heels in to explicitly argue for an androcentric version of Christianity, the evangelical community needs bold voices like Rachel's to challenge these kinds of assertions, which I believe do a great deal of damage to the church.  Additionally, I also want to point out that Fuller biblical studies professor Daniel Kirk has written a fantastic post in response to this controversy that is really worth reading (no really: he talks about the breasts of Jesus in Revelation 1:13!).  As a post-evangelical, progressive Christian studying theology at a liberal Protestant seminary, my voice in this particular conversation will probably mean less than evangelical bloggers like Daniel and Rachel.  Even so, I hope that some in the evangelical conversation on these matters may find my reflections here on feminist Christianity encouraging and constructive in some way.  To my progressive friends, I can only ask for patience as I humbly try to work out my thinking on these matters.

Elizabeth Johnson
 In my first year in seminary, I took a challenging class on feminist theologies.  While I continue to push back against more radical expressions of feminism, I was deeply impressed and challenged by a number of feminist theologians like Elizabeth Johnson, Catherine LaCugna, Marjorie Suchocki, Anne Carr, Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel, Celia Deane-Drummond, and Kathryn Tanner.  Johnson in particular has probably influenced my thinking the most with her now classic and award-winning book She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse.  She makes the case for a doctrine of the Trinity that uses only female symbols, especially by arguing for the central significance of Wisdom/Sophia language in the bible.  She also rightly points out that
"Jesus' language about God is not monolithic but is diverse and colorful, as can be seen in the imaginative parables he spun out.  A woman searching for her lost money, a shepherd looking for his lost sheep, a bakerwoman kneading dough, a traveling businessman, the wind that blows where it wills, the birth experiences that delivers persons into new life, an employer offending workers by his generosity - these and many other human and cosmic instances are freely taken as metaphors for divine mystery in addition to the good and loving things that fathers do.  God's way of dealing with human beings is at once like and not like all of these.  Later Christian talk about God is poor indeed compared with the riot of images spun out in the Gospels' depiction of Jesus' speech." (She Who Is, 80)
Neither should we forget the many female images for God throughout the Hebrew scriptures: Deut. 32:18, Numbers 11:12-13, Isaiah 42:14, 49:15, 63:13, Jeremiah 31:20, and Hosea 13:8 - to name a few.  Such female metaphors that attempt to express the mystery of God in the bible provide "glimpses of an alternative to dominant patriarchal language about God." (She Who Is, 103)

In her constructive proposal, Johnson does not say that traditional symbols of Father and Son must be entirely removed, but that they need to be at least complemented by alternatives that can do justice to the mystery of the triune God and the biblical texts that speak of God in motherly metaphors.  She proposes the symbols of Mother-Sophia, Jesus-Sophia, and Spirit-Sophia.  Some feminists even argue that as we actively work to resist gender inequality in the Christian tradition, which is many centuries in the making, it would actually be more appropriate and effective to drop all male symbols for God - at least for the time being.  This may not be practical and overstating the case, but I understand their point and recognize that in certain contexts it may be appropriate.  At the very least, I believe that churches need to be open to practitioners substituting alternative images for God in times of worship, confession, reading the Lord's prayer, etc.  A literal, overly strict adherence to certain words for God makes no sense when we recognize the analogical nature of theological language. 

We do need to realize how powerfully theological language shapes our practices and experiences, particularly the way that standard patriarchal images of God have negatively affected women's experiences.  Just a few days ago, a friend of mine who is a woman told a moving story about the very first time she read a book with inclusive language that did not exclusively use the term "he" to refer to God or "man" to refer to people in general - practices that have been the norm for centuries until recently.  My friend said that reading this more inclusively written book was an experience she will never forget, transforming her in a deep and powerful way.

Although I am certainly still working through some of these issues, my own various practices and shifts in thinking at the moment in response to Johnson's challenge as a confessional trinitarian has been to nearly exclusively refer to God as "she" and to use language like Motherly Father, Fatherly Mother, or sometimes simply Mother.  I also think it is right to de-center the maleness of Jesus in Christology by moving beyond a dualistic anthropology.  As Johnson rightly argues,
"if maleness is essential for the christic role, then women are cut out the loop of salvation, for female sexuality is not taken on by the Word made flesh.  If maleness is constitutive for the incarnation and redemption, female humanity is not assumed and therefore not saved." (153)
But such logic rests on a dualistic anthropology, which is certainly too simplistic. She argues that we need to move towards a multipolar conception of anthropology that no longer views the sex of human persons as the "touchstone of personal identity." This means viewing humans more holistically as multi-dimensional, sex being one of many dimensions of persons that includes age, race, period in history, bodily handicap, cultural/economic/social location, etc. In this view of humans, the sex of Jesus is no more important to his saving significance than the fact that he was a young, poor, Palestinian Jew living in the first century. Johnson continues:
"A multipolar anthropology allows Christology to integrate Jesus' maleness using interdependence of difference as a primary category, rather than emphasizing sexuality in an ideological, distorted way. Amid a multiplicity of differences Jesus' maleness is appreciated as intrinsically important for his own personal historical identity and the historical challenge of his ministry, but not theologically determinative of his identity as the Christ nor normative for the identity of the Christian community. Story, symbol, and doctrine then assume an emancipatory gestalt." (156)
Furthermore, with Johnson, I think it is entirely defensible to emphasize the female symbol of Sophia rather than male Logos as incarnate in Jesus. Johnson points out that "the fluidity of gender symbolism evidenced in biblical Christology breaks the stranglehold of androcentric thinking that circles around the maleness of Jesus." (99) I have also been rethinking atonement theology for a number of years now in a way that moves beyond certain substitutionary models that feminist theologians like Rita Nakashima Brock have persuasively and rightly criticized as deeply problematic and even hurtful to women (I particularly appreciate the Korean liberation theologian Andrew Sung Park's sensitive work on atonement theology in dialogue with feminist theologians, which I have blogged about before).

Finally, within theology proper, Christians have far too often held on to images and metaphysics that support androcentrism.  Think about it: the ideal man has usually been framed as one who is not impacted (at least too much) by emotions but remains rational, unaffected, unmoved, in power, and on top.  God, imaged in male language, is then naturally interpreted along the same lines: impassible, immutable, etc.  As a trinitarian process thinker, this standard and Greek view of God is no longer something I believe, but instead gives way to the most-moved, internally related, deeply affected God whose nature is essentially love in the fullest sense of agape, eros, and philia.  As Whitehead famously wrote, God is "the fellow-sufferer who understands."  Johnson similarly points out that Sophia is best understood as being manifest "in solidarity with the one who suffers" and as "the source of life." (95)  Furthermore, this Sophia-God is not the God of traditional theism who is absolutely transcendent and only superficially immanent in the world, intervening from without: this is a God who is always essentially immanent in the world and working from within at every moment of becoming, for "the world lives by its incarnation of God in itself", as Whitehead also said.  This God is not the traditional "masculine" God of absolute omnipotence who can basically always get 'his' way if 'he' so desires: this is the God who em-powers rather than over-powers, she is persuasive rather than coercive, and radically immanent as well as transcendent.

You might want to ask after reading this: do these kinds of theological paradigm shifts really matter or make a difference for the struggle for the full equality of women and resistance against androcentric pastors like Piper and Driscoll?  I would argue that they most certainly do.  As Johnson writes:
"While officially it is rightly and consistently said that God is spirit and so beyond identification with either male or female sex, yet the daily language of preaching, catechesis, and instruction conveys a different message: God is male, or at least more like a man than a woman, or at least more fittingly addressed as male than as female.  The symbol of God functions.  Upon examination it becomes clear that this exclusive speech about God serves in manifold ways to support an imaginative and structural world that excludes or subordinates women.  Wittingly or not, it undermines women's human dignity as equally created in the image of God." (She Who Is, 5)
Sexism is a truly devastating sin, one that has tragically pushed many women (and men) out of the Christian faith altogether - especially in the last few decades.  Androcentric Christianity, as articulated so unapologetically by pastors like Piper and Driscoll, has resulted in all sorts of injustices for women that we continue to see in the church and throughout society today.  As feminist theologians also point out, not only are women's full humanity denied in these distorted versions of Christianity, but men's full humanity is inevitably denied as well as their identities are constructed in a distorted fashion.  My hope is that we can continue to move towards a more life-affirming, inclusive vision of the Christian faith, and I believe very strongly that feminist thinkers like Johnson need to be heard, now more than ever.  The so-called "masculine Christianity" needs to be actively resisted, but this must necessarily involve our reforming of traditional theologies if such resistance is to ever make a lasting difference.