The Philosophical Challenge of Religious Diversity


Philip L. Quinn and Kevin Meeker are the editors of the book entitled above (Oxford University Press, N.Y., 2000).  For anyone that believes that Christianity has a vice grip on the only true way of viewing spiritual matters, then this book is very challenging to say the least.  After reading it you can have your faith rattled; however, the ideas can also strengthen your faith in God and that is what I hope you will carry away from these ideas.


As the editors say in their introduction, “…it is unlikely that you will discover undisputed arguments or reasons that will establish the superiority of your own evangelical Christianity…(when you compare it to)…Hinduism or...Buddhism or Islam Judaism or Taoism…” (p. 1).   “So what should you do?  Should you stick with the Christian system of belief and practice in which you were raised?  Should you try to switch to one of its competitors?  Or should you become a skeptic about all the religious systems of belief and take a stand outside all the religious practices?  Once you have become genuinely puzzled by questions like these, you have felt the challenge of religious diversity” (p. 2).


I believe that a fourth alternative exists; it is the one that the great religious scholar Huston Smith has taken.  When you learn the values of all the great religions, then you can borrow from them all, use them all, value them all, accept them all---as he does.  But at the same time you can continue to practice the ONE of your choice.  This is not a contradiction.  It is the way of the learned and has been so throughout history. 


Just how important is it that you try to explore and connect with this fourth path?  The challenge of religious diversity is far more than some esoteric philosophical challenge. The challenge is being played out every day throughout the world through wars and terrorism.  The challenge was at the heart of the war in Bosnia, Belfast, and Beirut.  It is at the heart of the conflict between Israel and Palestine and at the heart of conflicts throughout the Middle East, Africa, Indonesia, India and Pakistan, and the Philippines.  Few things related to cultural diversity are more problematic than religious diversity.


The editors “…use the term religious diversity to refer to the undisputed fact that different religions espouse doctrines that are at least apparently in conflict and offer alternative paths of salvation or liberation…The three main positions in the conversation are exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism.  Exclusivism is the view that one religion has it mostly right and all the other religions go seriously wrong….Pluralism is the view…according to which all the major religious traditions---the so-called world religions---are in contact with the same ultimate religious reality, and all of them offer paths to salvation or liberation that are, as far as anyone can tell, equally effective in producing transformations from self-centeredness to Reality-centeredness.  Inclusivism is a family of views that occupy a middle ground between exclusivism and pluralism.  Thus, for example, Christian soteriological inclusivism is the view that salvation through Christ is not restricted to Christians but is available to devout members of other religious traditions, who might be thought of as, to use Karl Rahner’s memorable phrase, anonymous Christians” (p. 3).


Is their any God at all?


“The conversation about religious diversity occasionally makes contact with the realism and antirealism debate.  A religious realist affirms that the ultimate religious reality (God, Brahman, the Tao, etc.) exists independent of human thought and experience.  A religious antirealist denies that this is the case.  There are several varieties of antirealism.  Subjectivists hold that the ultimate religious reality is nothing but a product of human subjectivity.  Freudians who think that God is nothing but an imaginary father-figure produced by wishful thinking are subjectivists.  Constructivists hold that the ultimate religious reality is nothing but a cultural construction.  Durkheimians who think religious thought and experience merely represent, in a disguised fashion, social facts and relations are constructivists.  Some people think that the fact of religious diversity counts as evidence in favor of religious antirealism of one kind or another” (p. 3).


I am a religious realist.  However, as a professor and believer in the importance of critical thinking, I do not hold this position by faith alone.  I also explore, examine, test out through reading and research my beliefs.  That is why such scholars as Hillman and Weiss (see my summaries of their books) are so important to us all.  They, along with many others, help us more fully understand the role of the spiritual and the value of diversity in our lives and in our philosophies.


Some would have us rely upon the testimonies of others about miracles as a way of establishing our belief system.  However, as David Hume pointed out: “There is not to be found, in all history, any miracle attested by a sufficient number of men, of such unquestioned good-sense, education, and learning, as to secure us against all delusion in themselves; of such undoubted integrity, as to place them beyond all suspicion of any design to deceive others; of such credit and reputation in the eyes of mankind, as to have a great deal to lose in case of their being detected in any falsehood; and at the same time, attesting facts performed in such a public  manner and in so celebrated a part of the world, as to render the detection unavoidable: All which circumstances are requisite to give us a full assurance in the testimony of men” (p. 29).


Despite the fact that we should NOT believe in miracles as they, as Hume notes, are not reliable evidence of anything, has never stopped people from believing in them.  As Hume states: “The many instances of forged miracles, and prophecies, and supernatural events, which, in all ages, have either been detected by contrary evidence, or which detect themselves by their absurdity, prove sufficiently the strong propensity of mankind to the extraordinary and the marvelous, and ought reasonably to beget a suspicion against all relations of this kind” (p. 30).


It is that “strong propensity” that we must guard against.  As learners, it is our calling to seek the truth and to be skeptical of all those who would have us believe in miracles rather than in facts.


Religious Pluralism and Salvation


The chapter by the above name is written by John Hick.  Hick is Danforth Professor Emeritus of the Philosophy of Religion at the prestigious Claremont Graduate School and is one of the major scholars in the field of religious diversity.


Hick states: “The fact that there is a plurality of religious traditions, each with its own distinctive beliefs, spiritual practices, ethical outlook art forms, an cultural ethos, creates an obvious problem for those of us who see them, not simply as human phenomena, but as responses to the Divine.  For each presents itself, implicitly or explicitly, as in some important sense absolute and unsurpassable and as rightly claiming a total allegiance” (p. 54).


This is a powerful problem.  How do we determine which of these faiths are to be judged the winner, the best one, the one we should follow?  Hick explores their results as one way of judging them and concludes: “…that the personal virtues (as well as vices) are basically much the same within these very different religio-cultural settings and that in all of them unselfish concern for others occurs and is highly valued.  And, needless to say, as well as love and compassion we also see all-too-abundantly, and apparently spread more or less equally in every society, cruelty, greed, hatred, selfishness, and malice” (p. 57).


“I suggest that all that we can presently arrive at is the cautious and negative conclusion that we have no good reason to believe that any one of the great religious traditions has proved itself to be more productive of love/compassion than another” (p. 58).


“If we identify the central claim of each of the great religious traditions as the claim to provide, or to be an effective context of, salvation; and if we see salvation as an actual change in human beings from self-centeredness to a new orientation centered in the ultimate divine Reality; and if this new orientation has both a more elusive ‘spiritual’ character and a more readily observable moral aspect---then we arrive at the modest and largely negative conclusion that, so far as we can tell, no one of the great world religions is salvifically superior to the rest” (p. 58).


Arrogance in the face of the unknowable


It is interesting how confident some people are that one religion is superior to another when it is clear that our understanding of God inevitably contains an ineffable quality. 


“For example, within Christianity, Gregory of Nyssa declared that: ‘The simplicity of the true Faith assumes God to be that which He is, namely incapable of being grasped by any term, or any idea, or any other device of our apprehension, remaining beyond the reach not only of the human but of the angelic and all supramundane intelligence, unthinkable, unutterable, above all expression in words, having but one name that can represent His proper nature, the single name being Above Every Name.  Augustine, continuing this tradition, said that ‘God transcends even the mind’, and Aquinas that ‘by its immensity, the divine substance surpasses every form that our intellect reaches’.  In Islam the Qur’an affirms that God is ‘beyond what they describe’.  The Upanishads declare of Brahman, ‘There the eye goes not, speech goes not, nor the mind’, and Shankara wrote that Brahman is that ‘before which words recoil, and to which no understanding has ever attained’” (pp. 60-61).


Instead of facing the wondrous quality of God and how God is ultimately beyond our ability to understand; people tend to attack the dogmas of one another.  We get into pissing contests when we should be elevating our mind to higher spiritual levels.  We get caught up in whether or not human beings reincarnate, for example.  Hicks states that: “I suggest that we would do well to apply to such questions a principle that was taught by the Buddha two and a half millennia ago.  He listed a series of ‘undetermined questions’---whether the universe is eternal, whether it is spatially infinite, whether (putting it in modern terms) mind and brain are identical, and what the state is of a completed project of human existence after bodily death.  He refused to answer these questions, saying that we do not need to have knowledge of these things in order to attain liberation or awakening (nirvana); and indeed that to regard such information as soteriologically essential would only divert us from the single-minded quest for liberation” (pp. 61-61).


Hick is not arguing against exploring these and any other concerns that we may have.  He feels that they may have genuine importance and some day we may find answers to them thanks to the development of empirical evidence.  However, it is clear that while we are engaged in the search for ultimate truths, it is very arrogant to assume that we already have such truths and that no one else from some religion other than our own could possibly hold such truths.  Yes, go on the quest; but do so lovingly, with an open heart to all the great truths imbedded in all the great religions. 


Hick says that: “Our human religious experience, variously shaped as it is by our sets of religious concepts, is a cognitive response to the universal presence of the ultimate divine Reality that, in itself, exceeds human conceptuality…each major tradition, built around its own distinctive way of thinking-and-experiencing the Real, has developed its own answers to the perennial questions of our origin and destiny, constituting more or less comprehensive and coherent cosmologies and eschatologies.  These are human creations which have, by their association with living streams of religious experience, become invested with a sacred authority.  However they cannot all be wholly true; quite possibly none is wholly true; perhaps all are partly true.  But since the salvific process has been going on through the centuries despite this unknown distribution of truth and falsity in our cosmologies and eschatologies, it follows that it is not necessary for salvation to adopt any one of them.  We would therefore do well to learn to tolerate unresolved, and at present unresolvable, differences concerning these ultimate mysteries.


“One element, however, to be found in the belief-systems of most of the traditions raises a special problem, namely that which asserts the sole salvific efficacy of that tradition” (pp. 63-64).  This arrogance is what tends to tear society apart.  We get it into our puny minds that God has told us that our faith is the only path to salvation and that we owe it to others that they learn of our faith and accept it---or else!  Then the blood begins to flow!  Instead of hearing our God’s pleas to love one another, we reach out with the sword in hand---we organize crusades, we create terrorist cells.  Hick ends his chapter by stating that: “…it is not for us to tell people of other traditions how to do their own business. Rather, we should attend to our own” (p. 66).


It is here and only here that I would take issue with Hicks.  Yes, we should not tell others how to run their lives and we should tend to our own gardens.  However, I deeply believe that God, not just the Christian God, but the God of all the great religions, is imploring us to reach out with olive branches to one anther.  It is not enough to be secluded from one another.  We are one race, the human race, and we must work together and not apart.


Ninian Smart is J.F. Rowney Professor of Comparative Religions in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara and makes that point by stating: “Complementary religions can instruct one another and render critiques in a positive and caring manner.  So it may turn out that the fruits of the models will resemble one another quite a lot.  Complementarity suggests the possibility, but by no means the certainty, of convergence” (p. 104).  That would be a wonder goal to move toward.  It might also be where God wants us to go?!


George I. Mavrodes is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor and states, in his discussion of polytheism, that: “We ought to allow the possibility that there may be distinct religions that have the very same god, and others that really do have distinct gods.  There might be religions whose gods are purely fictional and imaginary entities, others whose gods are phenomenal beings, still others whose gods are substantial creaturely beings, and still others whose god is the Real, the rock-bottom reality who gives the gift of being to everything else that exists” (p. 159).  I can already hear the shouting going on!  Yeah!  And my religion is that Real one, the only Real one!  That misses the point of all that has been said.  We all need to accept the fact that it is not a contest!  It is a process of learning.  It is fine to feel that my religion is the best, as long as we don’t close ourselves off from what others have to offer and to the fact that they might even have more to offer than we do.


Can you have the courage and humility to think and behave in this manner?