P is for Pluralism

There are lots of things to which one could take a pluralism approach. Some consist only in noting the fact of plurality, and others in asserting that plurality is good or necessary in some way. Even if we narrow our focus to religion, pluralism can focus on salvation (there are a plurality of ways to be saved) or on truth (either that there are a plurality of truths or that a plurality of religions have access to the truth). Although all these positions exist, ‘pluralism’ as a term in theology is most associated with the latter – and in Christian theology, one of the best known pluralists is John Hick.

Like anyone else, John Hick changed his mind over his lifetime, but in this context his later work is the more interesting. In books such as The Rainbow of Faiths  and God Has Many Names, he argues that since all religions have similar fruits (produce good and bad people at about the same rate), and all aim towards a realignment of the self from selfishness towards an ultimate reality, all are in some way offering different but complementary pictures of what Hick calls the Real. This is, of course, a simplified explanation of the position, but I hope that for the purposes of a blog post it captures both the key features which make it attractive and those which make it difficult for some to accept. On the one hand, it supports many liberal values, such as tolerance, sincere dialogue between religions, and the equality of all people. On the other hand, it requires letting go some key claims made by some religions, especially to have exclusive access to the truth. And it makes some claims which are just a bit puzzling – Hick is a realist about the Real and rejects naturalistic interpretations out of hand (what if what all religions have in common is a feature of the human brain?), and his talk about the Real as ineffable and as accessed equally by many religions is a bit confusing – can people access the Real directly or at all, or not?

In my research on British Quakers, I compared Hick’s pluralism to Quaker universalism (which assumes that they’re different, and that Quaker universalism is a single position – neither of which is quite true, but both were close enough to make the discussion worth having). One of the key differences I identified is their starting points – Hick begins from an observation about the fruits of religion in people’s lives, while Quakers talking about these issues usually take the presence of ‘that of God’ in everyone as a foundation. This difference at the beginning of the discussion doesn’t lead into huge differences in the conclusions – although there are some: Hick is still interested, for philosophical as well as theological reasons, in there being some form of afterlife, which Quakers today usually just don’t talk about. Both conclude that all religions (or at least all major religions – both Hick and the Quakers can think of some they would reject as having valuable insights because they seem to contain or lead to evil) have some truth and are worth studying. Both also conclude – in fact the Quakers often assume – that there is a single Reality, underlying or embedded throughout the world, which religions and religious people can genuinely experience and talk about. This Reality need not be personal, or external, or supernatural, but both Hick and most Quaker universalists think that it is Real and unified (if not singular – one argument says that it is neither single nor plural because number is not a relevant category).

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