Friday, November 30, 2012

Why I'm Not A Pluralist

                I skimmed over one of my all time favorite books, "The Life of Pi" by Yann Martel, recently for a book club and it got me to thinking about pluralism. I was going to attack this subject in the next few weeks anyway, and since it’s on my mind, I thought I’d go ahead and address it now.

                Pluralism is, in its essence, a philosophical system which seeks to harmonize the various religions of the world, seeking common ground between them. It attempts to find a single universal religion of which all other faiths can be thought of as manifestations. John Hick, in his exposition of pluralism says that “the same God who saves Christians through their response to the incarnate Christ also saves Jews through their response to the Torah, and saves Muslims through their response to the Qur’an, and saves Hindus through their response to the Vedic revelation . . .”[1] All religions, therefore, have salvific power insofar as they center on a manifestation of Ultimate Reality. The goal of pluralism is to act as a mediator between the different religions and find a way for us to stop seeing each other through hostile, right-wrong worldviews and see each other as belonging to a great family of humanity seeking to commune with Ultimate Reality.[2]

                My objections to pluralism are basically three-fold. First, I do not think that pluralism succeeds in accomplishing the goals I just outlined. To establish a common religion behind the religions, Pluralism must label certain aspects of each religion as unreal or mythological constructs of the particular culture from which it arises. In other words, these religious differences do not reflect God as He is in Himself, but only the human lenses through which we see God. If we are to accept the Pluralist vision of reality, then, we must reject doctrines such as the Trinity, for Christianity, or the final authority of Muhammad, for Islam, as factual revelations of God as He is in Himself.  Because of this, any ardent follower of any religion can never affirm Pluralism, but can only be seriously offended by it. Far from affirming all religions, pluralism denies all religions.

                Further, Pluralism, in proposing such a “least common denominator” religion behind the religions actually sets up a distinct worldview which makes exclusive truth claims that invalidate the truth claims of all other worldviews.  If Pluralism is factually correct, then Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and all others are factually inaccurate, and if any of those worldviews is correct, then Pluralism is incorrect. Pluralism itself, then, is not pluralistic. It makes an exclusive claim about reality which affords itself the same kind of moral and intellectual superiority which it finds so reprehensible in other worldviews. This first objection, then, is not saying that Pluralism is, out of hand, incorrect; but that it itself does not succeed at being pluralistic.

                Second, Pluralism, at its core, attempts to abide by the philosophy that all people are equally right, and that no concept of divinity should be thought of as “wrong.” So, in an effort to affirm all the various concepts of God, Pluralism must reject any characteristic of God that might factually contradict some other religion’s concept of Deity. For example, Pluralism cannot affirm a personal God because that would be a tacit denial of the impersonal concepts of God found in nontheistic traditions. John Hick, said “If we are to proceed inductively from the actual religious experience of humanity, rather than deductively from an arbitrarily adopted premise, then we must see theism as one form, but not the only form, of religious thought and experience.”[3] Any meaningful, positive statement about anything inherently implies that any contradictory statement is incorrect. Every positive statement contains within itself a multitude of negative statements. So you can’t say that God exists one way without saying that He does not exist in other contradictory ways. So Pluralism’s goal of affirming all religions robs it of the power to make any positive, constructive statements about God at all. The God that results can only be a vague, diluted sense of Diety.

                Third, pluralism can ultimately only be atheistic. There seems to be a basic difference between how Pluralists speak and think, and how Particularists speak and think. It seems to me that Particularists think about various religions as various scientific theories, like Heliocentrism and Geocentrism. It’s impossible to hold to both of these theories at the same time because they contain many mutually contradictory propositions. Pluralists seem to think about religions more like old legends, or as one friend said recently, as languages. To this friend, different religions are cultural expressions of divinity, just as languages are cultural expressions of ideas. Following a religion is like speaking a language; and so, it is as ridiculous to say that you can only adhere to one religion as it is to say that you can only speak one language. Or again, a Pluralist might study religions in the same way one might study cultural folk tales or poetry, as cultural expressions of our common humanity that help you to see universal truths in new light. They are true in the same way that the stories of King Arthur, or of Shakespeare, or Greek myths are true.

                For me, however, the analogy fails. Words from different languages may all point to the same idea but only because the words, in and of themselves, don’t carry any propositions along with them. A rose by any other name smells as sweet; and it is not the words we use that contradict one another, but the ideas to which they refer. You may very well call God Allah or Brahmah, Shiva or Ganesh but as soon as you use those names to propose certain factual realities, Pluralism falls apart. Indeed, the only way that Pluralism works is if God does not factually exist. As soon as you propose a God who factually exists, you propose a God that exists in some way but not others, who is characterized by some things and not others; you move into the realm of fact and fiction, of accurate and inaccurate, of right and wrong. Pluralism cannot ascribe to any particular factual instance of God because that instance may contradict some other concept of the divine. The only way to maintain that all concepts of God are valid is to deny that any of them actually point to some objectively existing reality, but that they merely point back inward toward the human who conceived. Pluralism cannot, therefore, maintain that all religions are true, but merely that all religions contain truth. Pluralism must be a version of atheism to hold together.

                So, if Pluralists don’t actually believe in a real, factual God, then what do they worship? Because of its least common denominator God is so vague, there is nothing in God or about Him worth centering on. The only thing left to center on is humanity itself. And that is just what pluralism ultimately does. It fails to focus humanity on God, and succeeds only at focusing us on ourselves. Hans Küng, another Pluralist, says that a religion is valid and salvific “insofar as a [it] serves the virtue of humanity, insofar as its teachings on faith and morals, its rites and institutions support human beings in their human identity, and allows them to gain a meaningful and fruitful existence, it is a true and good religion.”[4] Notice how he fails to say anything about Ultimate Reality here, only humanity. Pluralism removes God from the religious equation and substitutes humanity.

                I believe in God; I believe that He factually exists and that my role as a human is to serve, submit to, and glorify Him. Ultimately, I want to commune with God, and that is why I am not a Pluralist.

[1] John Hick, “John Hick: The Theological Challenge of Religious Pluralism” in Christianity and Other Religions: Selected Readings. Ed. by John Hick and Brian Hebblethwaite. (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2001). 165-166.
[2] ibid, 164. He wants us to see salvation as an actual change in men and women from natural self-centredness to, in theistic terms, God-centredness, or in more general terms, a new orientation centred in the Ultimate . . .
[3] ibid, 167.
[4]  Hans Küng, “Hans Küng: Is There One True Religion: An Essay in Establishing Ecumenical Criteria.” in Religions. 134.

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