Visiting the home of Mateo Ricci in 1601, Li Zhizao, a young magistrate with an interest in cartography, spotted a map on the wall. The map showed not just the thirteen provinces and two capitals of Ming China, and not only Japan, Korea, Tibet and India, or coastal Africa to which Admiral Zheng He had sailed early in the dynasty, but six continental masses, plus extensive regions in white at bottom. Years later, after he fell ill and Ricci nursed him to health, Li became a Christian. Ricci’s greater calling was to map Christianity in relation to the Confucian classics on which Li, like all of the literati class, had been raised. Indeed, Li subsequently wrote a series of works describing ‘Heavenly Studies,’ based on the religious and scientific doctrines Ricci brought to China. But he never forgot that map, which literally expanded his view of the world.
Over the four centuries since, a credible mapping of beliefs in relation to one another, Ricci’s larger ambition, has become a pressing priority of emerging world civilization.
Schemes for relating world religions, like misfortunes, often come in threes. Gibbon famously said ancient Romans of different classes saw religions as equally true (commoners), false (philosophers) or useful (magistrates, Gibbon 1776: 43). In the late 1930s, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan borrowed the political terms ‘right, centre, and left’ to describe models, taking Karl Barth and missionary-scholar John Farquhar as Christian representatives of the first two, and ascribing the third to Hindus and liberal Christians (Radhakrishnan 1959: 347). Paul Tillich described Barth’s position (with some sympathy) as ‘exclusivist,’ contrasting it with ‘pluralist’ and ‘inclusivist’ (Tillich 1963), terms that have bedeviled analysis ever since.
I am tempted to illustrate the shortcomings of the latter two in reference to an ironic interlude in the recent Boston tragedy, when two young terrorists hijacked a Mercedes SUV with the legend ‘COEXIST’ on its rear fender, ‘C’ being the ‘Islamic’ crescent. We do share a planet, and the overt sentiment of the bumper-sticker ought not be controversial. But the thinness of the ambition is matched by the crudeness of its implicit theology. How exactly does Islam, founded by a man who started numerous wars and married numerous women (not all of whom were given a choice), rest alongside peace (‘O’ for the peace sign) and gender equality (‘E’)? And isn’t the one-dimensionality of this row of icons, as misleading as the strange bedfellows it creates? Shouldn’t the crescent moon (originally a Turkish moon god) be in the sky? And isn’t the cross (‘T’) set on a hill, like the serpent in the wilderness, for a particular reason?
I will argue in this post that when it comes to the question of truth -- I will not argue in relation to salvation here, which I see as "above my pay grade" -- the conventional theologies of religions are almost as fatally simple and misleading. They are not only wrong as to guiding assumptions, they are unbiblical (especially pluralism and exclusivism), and are even logically incoherent. A model more orthodox and traditional, radical and of greater explanatory power – a multidimensional sketch of world religions rather like Mateo Ricci’s own – is needed. In a later essay, I will propose such a solution, based on the idea of fulfillment.
Why Pluralism Fails
Working with ethnic communities in Birmingham, England, Hick began visiting mosques, temples, synagogues, and gurdwaras. He converted to pluralism from that experience: ‘It was evident to me that essentially the same kind of thing is taking place in them as in a Christian church – namely human beings opening their minds to a higher divine Reality, known as personal and good and as demanding righteousness and love between man and man.’ At first Hick called this Higher Reality ‘God.’ But that seemed to exclude Buddhist and secular communities in which ‘salvation’ also seemed to occur. Hick therefore reasoned that each community was in touch not with ultimate reality itself, which is after all beyond personality and impersonality, good and evil, but with a ‘manifestation’ or ‘face’ of the ‘Real.’
Hick suggested that Yahweh is ‘the divine persona in relation to the Jewish people,’ and while ‘genuine, authentic and valid,’ belongs within that history. In the same way, Shiva or Krishna ‘are divine personae in relation respectively to the Shaivite and the Vaishnavite communities of India. Thus the many gods are not separate and distinct divine beings, but rather different personae formed in the interaction of divine presence and human projection’ (Hick 1980: 52-3).
Both Hick’s appeal to astronomy and Smith’s to history echo Ricci’s desire to join East and West by mapping traditions within one grand scheme. Both claim to posit credible ‘modern,’ that is, scientific, models of universal knowledge.
But pluralism has floundered on epistemological, historical, moral, and logical grounds.
Epistemologically, most travelled people will concede that kindness, courage, self-control, honesty, and other virtues can be found outside their native traditions, beginning, for Christians, with the Good Samaritan. But why should we take that as evidence that the religion of the person we admire is significantly true? One also finds kind atheists. Hick himself seems to concede the weakness of this argument by including ‘humanism,’ ‘Marxism’ and ‘Maoism’ as valid categories within pluralism. But if the Real manifests itself by non-existence as easily as by existence, why credit it with the latter virtue? If the 'Real' is just as easily 'revealed' as 'the Unreal,' Hick's model has reached its Reductio Ad Absurdum. Such an ephemeral concept becomes itself of no useful value.
Historically, how in fact has ‘salvific’ reform taken place? The Judeo-Christian model of salvation does not predict that all believers will be uniformly superior to all unbelievers, but that through the ‘seed of Abraham’ God will bless humanity. One might ask, ‘How would the rise of science, the reformist thinking of Roy, Gandhi, or Sun, the end of sati or foot binding, improvement in the status of women, universal education, the long, fitful reform of war-like European forest tribes that in American iconography culminates with Martin Luther King quoting Isaiah before a statue of Abraham Lincoln, have been different if Jesus remained in Nazareth and hewn wood?’ Considered historically, as Hick advises us to do, ‘rough equality’ in salvific influence of the great prophets can hardly be assumed. (Especially given a rich literature that intricately ties the greatest reforms to the Gospel.) One suspects some pluralists stress the dark side of Christian history precisely to avoid serious analysis of this difficult but not self-evidently inscrutable question.
Logically, how can salvation, which for Hick reveals itself through virtuous deeds, be evidence of a Real that cannot be called morally good? One might argue that followers of the Chinese goddess Guan Yin act kindly by the grace of a benevolent and ontologically real bodhisattva. But what would it mean to say the kindness of fatalists proves the existence of an indifferent Fate? If anything, the evidence would seem to undermine the claim, since the quality 'indifference' undermines the quality of 'kindness.' Yet tempted to call the Real at least analogously good, Hick hurled the forbidden fruit aside:
‘I see the force of your argument. Nevertheless I don’t think it can be accepted, because it violates the principle that any comprehensive interpretation of religion must take account of all the major traditions, and not just of one’s own.’ (Hick 1995: 61-2)
But why just major traditions?’ Why exclude human sacrifice as salvific? Or torture of counter-revolutionaries? This is not just a moral objection (that, shortly) but a logical conundrum. Hick argued for the Real from the allegedly salvific character of ‘major’ traditions, even while denying that which alone could make that evidence mean something – that the Real resembles what we want to be saved to, more than what we cry to God for salvation from. Unable to affirm even that, the Real becomes not only exclusive and unsupported, but self-defeating: its essential reason for Being dissipates.
Like all ineffable beings, Hick’s Real must be that of which nothing can be predicated and therefore provides no basis for preference. The Real cannot, Hick wrote, be described as ‘one or many, person or thing, conscious or unconscious, purposive or non-purposive, substance or process, good or evil, loving or hating’ (Hick 1992: 350). But Hick seemed caught between the horns of exclusivism, and the consequences of denying that, say, Mother Theresa acted in relation to the Real more appropriately than Jim Jones. If the Real is not more loving than hating, why should we identify it with heaven which saves us, rather than hell, which seeks our damnation?
In an essay in Christianity and Other Religions (2001), Hick responded to such objections. I italicize key terms that, ironically, reveal the confusion of his position with particular clarity:
‘We do not worship the Real in its infinite transcendent nature, beyond the scope of our human categories, but the Real as humanly thought and experienced within our own tradition. In religious practice we relate ourselves to a particular “face” or appearance or manifestation of the ultimate divine reality (2001: 169).
‘If we say that the figure of the Heavenly Father is a manifestation of the Real because it is salvific, and that it is salvific because it is a manifestation of the Real, are we not moving in a circle? Reply: Yes, the hypothesis is ultimately circular, as indeed every comprehensive hypothesis must be. The circle is entered, in this case, by the faith that human religious experience is not purely imaginative projection but is also a response to a transcendent reality. The hypothesis should be judged by its comprehensiveness, its internal consistency and its adequacy to the data – in this case, the data of the history of religions (2001: 170).’
Hick used the word ‘manifestation’ three times in these paragraphs. To ‘manifest’ means ‘to reveal, show, or display.’ What does it mean to say the Real ‘manifests’ itself through ‘faces’ of ultimate reality, if what is manifest does not truly reflect that reality? Hick smuggled in with his left hand what he extracts with his right: that God truly reveals Himself by ‘saving,’ and by Hick’s quiet exclusion of some means of salvation. The word ‘manifest’ carries one rhetorical advantage over synonyms: it is vaguer and therefore does not reveal the contradiction so clearly as ‘display’ or ‘show’ might. This shows clearly that on some level, Hick recoiled from the moral bankruptcy of his own doctrine.
A nebulous ‘Real’ that has no characteristics but that reveals itself (however unreliably!) in all religions, may be comprehensive, but it is hard to see how it explains even religious ethics. Why should a Real that is not ‘good’ want to save? When Wilfred Smith described religion as ‘a response to a divine initiative’ (Smith 1981: 30), how did that help us understand Aztec sacrifices, sati, or the Goan Inquisition? Pluralists cannot, it seems, escape the fact that some ‘manifestations’ of the ‘Real’ save more than others, or from insinuating that they thereby manifest the Real more truly than others. Hick focuses on ‘great traditions,’ one suspects, because Aztec ritual, Nazi metaphysics, or the ethical insights of Peoples’ Temple manifest the ineffable Real rather too paradoxically.
The problem is not just that religion is often horrible. It is that on principle, discrimination (in either sense of the word) is not something pluralism can admit. Yet Hick’s basis for accepting pluralism is that all major religions (he originally included Maoism, which may have seemed like a good idea in 1973) are vehicles of salvation. If so, it is a salvation that would often bring glee to the forces of darkness.
‘Lead me from the unreal to the Real’
Pluralists posit that all ‘great’ religions (at least) are more or less equally valid, true, or useful. John Hick’s metaphor of planets circling the sun begs the question, ‘Valid, true, or useful in relation to what?’ Just as a solar system requires one center of gravity, so pluralism seems to require some Ultimate that lends unity to different religions. Likewise, value judgments about religious systems are meaningless except in reference to some standard. Pluralism thus seems to demand something like ‘the Real,’ or the Enlightenment ideals D’Costa says western pluralists generally smuggle into their systems. But any such entity seems doomed to be seen as both too vague and too specific.
Wilfred Smith had a name for the error (common, he noted, in Christian tradition) of identifying transcendent or absolute truth with the manifestation through which one
|Wilfred Canwell Smith, former director|
of Harvard's Center for the Study of
While Paul Knitter saw a ‘theocentric universe’ as part and parcel of inclusive Christology (Knitter 1983), some find even the attenuated ‘theocentricism’ of ‘The Real’ to be ‘implicitly exclusivist’ (Apczynski 1992). Looking at Hick’s system from an even stronger position of Enlightenment rationality, John Apczynski saw it as parochial and ‘retrograde,’ pock-marked with unacknowledged ‘narrowness’ and ‘exclusivism.’ D’Costa compared Hick’s ‘Enlightenment Exclusivism’ unfavorably to Hindu and Tibetan Buddhist versions (D’Costa 2000: 72-79): ‘It privileges liberal modernity as the master code within which all the religions are positioned, and neutered.’ Yet it was precisely to avoid exclusivism that Hick fled orthodox Christology (McCready 1996), then theology, in the first place.
|Sikhism began as a "unity" religion; it later took up arms to |
protect its often admirable distinctiveness.
The irony is, more of humanity is arguably prepared to accept a concrete theism than a post-cultural and ineffable ‘Real.’ Chinese Zen practitioners may deny God as Buddhists, yet recognize the classical theistic term Shang Di. Advaita Vedanta may dominate philosophical Indian thought, but the masses (not excluding a Ram Mohan Roy or Gandhi) pray to a God outside themselves they hope will hear and answer. Cleanthes, Lao Zi, Epictetus, and Zhuang Zi (the second and fourth forming the ‘S’ in COEXIST) arguably recognize a personal Supreme God even while espousing philosophies often taken as pantheistic.
But the Jewish Scriptures portray Yahweh as acting in relation to all peoples: judging, punishing, and rewarding, answering prayers, and preparing a universal Messiah. Early Christians read Plato as ‘Moses in Attic Greek’ because they saw his theos (at least in Timaeus) as a Greek name for God. Paul also seemed to tacitly accept the Zeus of Aratus as an acceptable synonym, while Augustine called Latins to a fuller and saner conception of Jupiter. Even Australian and Chinese tribes accepted names for the Supreme Being as given by neighboring tribes. If God already transcends particular cultures, might not the Real represent a constriction rather than an expansion of sympathies?
And while the ‘high religion’ of some nations discourages monotheism, it is often present anyway. Anthropologist David Lewis asked 651 Japanese if they believed in a ‘Being above man and nature,’ and found almost two thirds believed (D. Lewis 1993: 242-3). I asked a smaller sample of students at Nagasaki and Siebold Universities, giving them pantheistic, atheistic, and polytheistic options, along with ‘There is only one God, who made everything,’ and ‘There are many gods, but one God made everything and is greater than the others.’ About one fifth chose one of these two options, mostly the former, though only a few appeared to belong to theistic religions (Marshall 2002: 88-9). In chapter 24 of the Lotus Sutra, which influenced the popular Japanese Nichiren sect, the bodhisattva Avalokitsvara functions much like Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita, a personal High God who reveals himself in many disguises (Tagaki 2001: 257-9). Henotheism at least does not seem inherently inimical to Japanese sensibilities.
It seems, then, that while a Christian model of religions that begins with God must exclude models that deny God, some degree of ontological exclusivism is probably an inescapable consequence of the nature of logical disjunction, which ‘broader’ theologies fail to escape, anyway. While theism ‘excludes’ non-theism, as ‘realism’ excludes non-realism, placing God at center of the Christian map of religions is less provincial than commonly supposed, and seldom (if ever?) need ‘exclude’ any full human tradition.
So should we accept Hick’s Real because it is real, or for social reasons? If the latter, is it moral or even possible to believe something fundamental about the nature of reality simply to build community? Anyway, given the tendency of ‘unity’ religions to evolve into sects, why should this one succeed in unifying? And if unity is the goal, why not start with the idea of God, or of a savior who dies for sin – beliefs that include far more of humanity, and far more of humanity’s branches?
Nor, for all the problems the Real creates, does it save Hick from accusations of ‘exclusivism’ on either side. The search for something inert enough that everyone can believe in it collapses on both flanks: it excludes the majority, whose concepts of the Absolute are concrete, and it remains subject to charges of cultural bias when traces of orthodox theology and Christology are (inevitably) found tainting the ethnological headwaters of even the most prestine pluralism.
Why Exclusivism Fails
I agree with Newbigin that the humbler alternative is to model religions by what they aver as true, rather than claim to know who will enter heaven.
Yet one difficulty with pure ontological exclusivism is finding anyone who holds it. The term seems to imply that truth is limited to one tradition. But how likely is it that a developed system of doctrines that millions of people have believed and often productively lived by for centuries could be so wrong that its claims overlap with truth exactly nowhere? John Hick found truth in Maoism: so did a pastor I knew who had spent two decades in one of Mao’s prisons for his faith. Even the Tsarnaevs, if they were as informed in Islamic orthodoxy as devoted to it, would be obliged to confess Jesus as the ‘Breath of God,’ as the Qur’an calls him. Likewise, what can it mean to say the Christian faith is exclusively true in relation to Islam, if one accepts the Muslim belief that there is one good God who created all things?
Newbigin described himself as exclusive in regard to the unique truth of Christianity (Newbigin 1989: 182) and the value of other religions for salvation, while being ‘inclusive or pluralist’ about the work of God in the lives of non-Christians, and the hope of their salvation. But in saying Christianity was uniquely true, Newbigin did not mean truth is exclusively Christian. In calling for a ‘new and unequivocal interpretation and elucidation’ of ‘exclusivism,’ Hendrik Kraemer likewise insisted that his own ‘exclusivism’ ‘includes a real openness to truth wherever it may be found . . . ‘ (Kraemer 1960: 365) But if even Kraemer admitted truth in other religions, then what exactly does exclusivism exclude?
|Bristol University theologian of |
religions Gavin D'Costa
Perhaps we should understand pluralism and exclusivism as not about truth and error, but about the set of facts one chooses to focus on, or the attitude one adopts towards those facts.
Over decades of research, Hick uncovered ‘immense spiritual riches’ in non-Christian faiths (Hick 1987: 17), while Peter Cotterell found a ‘morass of superstition, ignorance, exploitation, oppression, fear’ (Cotterell 1990: 51). One can find plenty of either. These extremes apparently describe how a scholar focuses attention, rather than any useful generalization about the varieties of religious experience or practice.
Challenges for Inclusivism
But life consists neither in including, nor excluding, but in discriminating between what ought to be taken in, and what rejected. Cells grow by taking in useful proteins, catalytic metals, water and oxygen, and by expelling viruses, bacteria, harmful chemicals, and waste. Homeland Security operates, ideally, on similar principles. Those who map world religions also face the need, as Paul Tillich put it, to ‘subject’ elements in religion to some ‘central criteria,’ which like DNA will orchestrate the uses of those elements.
With the dubious success of modernism at offering a universal narrative, and of post-modernism at escaping one, compromise models are often proposed: ‘provisional pluralism,’ ‘anonymous Christianity,’ ‘evolution of religions.’ Models that split the difference between pluralism and exclusivism are often jointly labelled ‘inclusivist,’ ‘acceptance,’ or (using the word rather vaguely, as Paul Knitter for example does) ‘fulfillment.’ Hick explained the popularity of such models by claiming the original, allegedly exclusivist Christian view of other faiths became ‘increasingly implausible and unrealistic,’ as Christians met followers of other religions after the Voyages of Discovery. Afraid to ‘explicitly renounce’ the old orthodoxy, these views, like the epicycles of late Ptolemaic astronomy, represent ad hoc, and doomed, attempts to escape the implications of contrary data (Hick 1980: 67). Hick thus defined the ‘older Christian view of other faiths’ as ‘areas of spiritual darkness within which there is no salvation, no knowledge of God, and no acceptable worship.’ Smith asked of those who held such views, ‘May we not accept their ignorance as ignorance?’ (Smith 1981: 120)
Hick was right though to be leery of ad hoc rationalization. He was right, also, to demand that models be judged by ‘comprehensiveness, internal consistency and ability to explain religious history (2001: 170).’ We have seen that his own pluralism fails badly to achieve these goals, however. The Real is itself narrow, incoherent, and of little explanatory value.
Inclusivism is, however, a vague term that by itself does nothing to solve this problem. What does a given model of religions include? What does it still need to exclude? On what grounds? Inclusivists run the risk of missing forest for trees, recognizing common traits without setting them in a coherent theoretical framework. Terms like ‘redemptive analogies’ (Richardson 1980), ‘promises God gave the Chinese,’ or ‘the Gospel in Indian cups’ bandied about by modern missionaries, echo the teleological daring and evocative flare of ancient slogans like ‘tutors to Christ,’ ‘seeds of the Word,’ ‘evangelical preparation.’ But analogies, metaphors, fulfilled promises, and other correlations, need to be set into a workable intellectual framework.
The challenge to ‘compromise’ theories is thus three-fold: (1) Are they grounded in Christian theology, or (as Hick and others claim) mere ad hoc adaptations? (2) Is the attitude to other religions they promote subtle and wisely selective? Or are they susceptible to Chesterton’s critique of the meson of Aristotle: ‘Being a mixture of two things, it is a dilution of two things?’ (Chesterton 1990: 93-4) (3) Do they accurately predict new facts? In other words, can an alternative to pluralism and exclusivism be found that is not just vaguely fair-minded or a ‘moderate’ balance between orthodox rigor and generosity of spirit, but follows cogent internal logic that discriminates and predicts both noble and ignoble within ‘pagan’ traditions, and even lends it new meaning?
A class of solutions that is richly biblical, claims theoretically coherence and ambition, tells a story of all humanity, includes and excludes according to clear-cut and orthodox criteria, derives at best from careful observation, and provides a basis for practical acts of contextualization, is one that I call ‘Fulfillment Theology (FT).’ My next essay will suggest that it has been central to Christian thought, and argue that it sheds powerful light on world religions.