Pluralism and Indifferentism
A few years ago, after the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith released the infamous Dominus Iesus, the secular press picked up on the fact that this was a controversial document. But they generally misunderstood the controversy. An Associated Press article, for example, ran under the title, “Vatican Rejects Equality of Religions.” As if that was news.
Dominus Iesus certainly had an arrogant tone, and this was indeed lamentable. But the suggestion that the Vatican might have affirmed that all religions are equal, and that their failure to do so was somehow newsworthy, was remarkably naïve. Never mind that it would have been a sudden and dramatic reversal of a nearly 2000 year old position, the bigger problem is that it doesn’t even make sense. It simply isn’t possible to coherently affirm that all religions are equal.
Why not? I’ll explain.
First of all, it has to be recognised that religions are not monolithic entities. If we wanted to decide which was better, Christianity or Buddhism, we would first have to decide which form of Christianity and which form of Buddhism we were going to compare. Within every religious tradition is a diversity of religious perspectives, some of which will be closer to the truth, or more conducive to “salvation” (however defined), than others.
Now, if I was to assert that all religious perspectives are equal, this would itself be a religious perspective. But the opposite of this – that all religious perspectives are not equal – is also a religious perspective. So I cannot assert that all religious perspectives are equal without also affirming the opposite. I would be contradicting myself.
We All Believe Our Beliefs Are True
If I affirm one perspective, and you affirm another perspective, I cannot coherently claim that your perspective is superior to my own. As soon as I decide that your perspective is superior, I would effectively be adopting that perspective.
One might argue that it is possible to affirm one perspective while acknowledging the other as an equally valid perspective. Actually, this is not possible.
Imagine two hypothetical religious traditions, which we’ll call P and Q. Traditionally the adherents of these religions have considered their own religion superior to the other. But times have changed, and people are becoming uneasy with the traditional triumphalism. On both sides there are some who maintain the superiority of their own tradition. We’ll call their positions Pe and Qe.
Let’s say I want to continue to call myself an adherent of P, I want to continue to attend services in a P house of worship, I find great richness and beauty and spiritual nourishment in the P tradition, etc., but I don’t want to affirm Pe. I can come up with a new position, which affirms that P and Q are equally valid. I call it Pp.
Have I succeeded in affirming a position without claiming that it is superior to others? No. If I affirm Pp, I nevertheless have to find my position superior to those who affirm Pe and Qe. If I affirm that P and Q are equally valid (i.e., Pp), I have to find Pp superior to Pe and Qe, because they deny that P and Q are equally valid. If I’m right, they must be wrong.
There’s probably a simpler way of saying that. But the point is, it is simply not possible to coherently assert that all religious perspectives are equally valid. Religious indifferentism is intrinsically incoherent.
So what about the so-called “pluralist” theologies? Traditionally, pluralism has been distinguished from not only exclusivism (which asserts that salvation is not available to those outside of a given religion), but from inclusivism as well.
Inclusivism, as it is usually understood, takes many forms, from the “anonymous Christian” idea of Karl Rahner (see Theological Investigations 6.390-398), to the less articulated position taken by the magisterium (see Vatican II’s Gaudium et spes).
An inclusivist believes that only their own religious perspective is fully “true,” but admits that those who share other perspectives can be saved. However, this salvation happens the way the inclusivist understands it. In other words, a Christian inclusivist might admit the possibility of a Muslim being saved, but they would likely assert that it is through Christ that the Muslim will be saved, and not through their submission to the will of God as defined by the Qur’an.
This kind of inclusivism is rejected by John Hick, who is probably the best known pluralist theologian. Hick rejects inclusivism because, like the “intolerant exclusivism” that preceded it, inclusivism “rests upon the claim to Christianity’s unique finality as the locus of the only full divine revelation and the only adequate saving event” (Disputations 84). As Hick sees it, inclusivism doesn’t do enough to address what he calls the “destructive effects of the assumption of Christian superiority” (79).
Instead, Hick says Christians should see Christianity not as a superior religion, but “as one of the great world faiths, one of the streams of religious life through which human beings can be savingly related to that ultimate Reality Christians know as the heavenly father” (emphasis in original; 85).
I have a few problems with Hick’s “pluralist hypothesis,” but for now I’m only going to concentrate on one, which is his insistence that he has somehow transcended inclusivism. Inclusivists, as he sees it, believe that their religious perspective is true, and other religious perspectives are at least somewhat inferior. Still, unlike exclusivists, inclusivists admit the possibility of salvation for those not sharing their perspective. Only this salvation, if it will happen, will happen for the reason known to the inclusivists, not for the reason believed by those holding inferior perspectives.
Understood this way, how is Hick not an inclusivist? He believes that his pluralistic perspective is true, and that inclusivists and exclusivists are in error. Still, he admits that inclusivists and exclusivists can be saved, but for the reason understood by Hick. So what’s the difference?
The problem is with seeing exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism as discrete categories along a single axis (i.e., the traditional typology). Theologies are either exclusivistic or inclusivistic. Here the distinction concerns the scope of salvation: is it limited to the adherents of one religion, or not.
Within inclusivism there is a further division, along a different axis. There are the traditional inclusivist theologies, like Rahner’s, and the pluralistic inclusivist theologies, like Hick’s. Here the distinction concerns not the scope of salvation, but something quite different.
As for what this “something” is, I can offer only a tentative suggestion. It seems to me that the traditional inclusivists see their religion as, if not an entirely divine product, at least the product of a unique divine initiative. A traditional Christian inclusivist sees Christianity as the religion specifically intended by God. A pluralistic inclusivist like Hick sees Christianity as one of several human responses to the “infinite Real,” the differences between it and other religions being the result of the “different cultural ways of being human” (Interpretation 14). Not surprisingly, non-pluralist inclusivists and pluralist inclusivists tend to disagree over the doctrine of the incarnation, at least as it is traditionally understood.
Hick’s idea has much to recommend it, and I agree with a lot of what he has to say, but his failure to acknowledge that it is impossible to avoid asserting the superiority of one’s own views over those with whom one disagrees is very problematic. I have a few other problems with his work as well, but that will have to wait for another day.
S. Mark Heim, in his book Salvations: Truth and Difference in Religion offers a similar critique of Hick (and others), but for somewhat different reasons. I disagree with some of Heim’s conclusions, but it’s one of the best critiques of the pluralism-as-distinct-from-inclusivism perspective I’ve come across.
John Hick has a number of very interesting articles on his official website. And they're not just about pluralism.