Religious Pluralism: Equality of All World Religions

Religious pluralism is a widely discussed view of religion and is very present in today’s society, and some may even say that it is present now more than at any other time in the history of Western civilization. John Hick, a philosopher of religion and theologian, held the belief that religious pluralism rejects the idea that one religion has the whole truth above all other religions. Generally speaking, pluralists believe that Christianity is not necessarily the ‘one true’ religion that is superior to others but states that all religions are equal concerning salvation and knowledge. Paul Knitter, a professor, and theologian stated that pluralism is “a move away from insistence on the superiority or finality of Christ and Christianity toward recognition of the independent validity of other ways”. Religious pluralism has an egalitarianism approach to religions; on this approach, justice is understood as being primarily a function of equality and justice for all people. Religious pluralism allows us to make sense of all major religions, creating a sense of diversity and acceptance without demoting any religion, empathizing with the importance of equality. The pluralist view of religions diminishes the specific greatness of a particular religion, for example, in Christianity, the incarnation of Jesus Christ and the view that God revealed himself fully through the ‘one’ religion is rejected; instead, God revealed himself in all major world religions. The uniqueness of Jesus Christ in Christianity can be seen as ‘one of its kind’ instead of ‘one and only’ if we are to consider all religions as unique. From a pluralist perspective, Jesus was one of many prophets/leaders whom God used to reveal religious truths and salvation from humanity. For that reason, all major world religions encompass truth and therefore, can be considered valid.

Hick’s pluralist hypothesis attempts to explain five factors, one: ‘The genetic and environmental relativity of religious perception and commitment’ is the view that adherents' environment can shape an individual’s horizons and can be affected by pre-determined factors such as where and when you are born. The view is that religious beliefs or practices can be dependent on the perspective of the religious tradition of an individual's cultural environment. Factor two encompasses the ‘Principle of “Critical Realism”’ the view maintains that in perceiving ‘reality’, it is never perceived as it is but instead is represented or a filtered version. We are not aware not of reality but rather of subjective representations of the external world within our minds. This perspective argues that we are only ever directly aware of the contents of our own minds, and we have no direct awareness of reality, only of the appearance of reality. Our knowledge of objective reality is never direct but is always derived from our own subjective experiences. Factor three is ‘Critical religious realism’, the notion that world religions accept the idea of the ‘Real’ and the ‘Real that is experienced.

Meister Eckhart, a German theologian, philosopher, and mystic held the view of the ‘Godhead’ (Deitas) is the origin of all things that are beyond God (Deus). “God and the Godhead are as distinct as heaven and earth”. Eckhart’s philosophy stressed the divinity of man. He taught a radical religious philosophy of seeing God and frequently referred to the spiritual connection between man’s soul and God. “The eye with which I see God is the same eye with which God sees me. My eye and God’s eye is one eye, and one sight, and one knowledge, and one love.” He taught the importance of detachment, like other mystical teachings, Eckhart believed that the responsibility of a seeker was to detach the mind from earthly distractions, such as desire. Another way of describing God in Christianity is through Apophatic theology, which is known as a method of describing God by this contradiction or denial, by which one states that only what may not be said about God. The purpose of Apophatic theology is to gain a glimpse of God or divinity by understanding what God is not, instead of describing what God is. Mysticism: a practice of religious experiences during an altered state of consciousness. It can be described as the experience of a mystical union or even direct communication with the ultimate reality and having the ability to have direct knowledge of God, this spiritual truth which can be obtained through spiritual experience. In Judaism, Maimonides, who was a medieval Jewish philosopher who became one of the most influential Torah scholars of the Middle Ages. Maimonides was also an important codifier of Jewish law, he would arrange the laws and rules of Jewish scriptures, and his views and writings hold a prominent place in Jewish history. His works caused some controversy, especially concerning the relations between reason and revelation, and developed a conception of how tradition anchored revelation. He elaborated a conception of revealed religion, writing out of it mystery, superstition, and any elements inconsistent with truths of reason. Maimonides held the view that God transcends everything else so completely that we can only attain any understanding of God by way of an Apophatic theology. He insisted that no prophecy could exceed Moses’ and that Torah is a perfect instrument for guiding a person to perfection, but the notion of perfection involved in this view includes no element of mystery or essentialism of a particular people. In Maimonides’ view, being a Jew is a matter of a person’s ethical and intellectual convictions and commitments, rather than exclusively a matter of ethnicity or lineage. At the same time, the particular history and traditions of the Jewish people had fundamental significance to Maimonides. His philosophy is a compelling, intriguing, and challenging example of the project of finding and articulating universally important principles, commitments, and ideals in the life and history of a particular people.

In Islam, Sufi Mystics emphasize introspection and spiritual closeness with God. They hold a mystical Islamic belief and practice in which Muslims seek to find the truth of divine love and knowledge through the direct personal experience of God. Finally, in Hinduism, there is a pluralistic view, with many different schools about the nature of reality, such as the Advaita Vedanta school of Hinduism. Advaita refers to this idea of the true self, Atman, which is the same as the highest reality. They seek spiritual liberation through acquiring vidya meaning knowledge, of one’s true identity, and the identity of Atman and Brahman. Factor four is ‘Equal salvific potential’. The view is that all religions are equal in spiritual and moral value. Transformation parity is known as a salvific process that begins “the transformation from self-centeredness to Reality-centeredness” in this life. This process changes people's lives and allows people to enhance their personal well-being by viewing themselves as responsible in a much higher, more expansive reality. Hick maintains that all major world religions are equally transformational. Lastly, factor five is the ‘Principle of Critical Trust’. This view maintains that if there is no reason to believe we are being deceived, then it is reasonable to suppose that things are as they appear and what we perceive is simple, direct, and authentic. Those who experience the ultimate reality are allowed to believe so unless there is a reason not to believe.

Objections were made against Hick’s hypothesis by Van Inwagen, who argues that there is no such thing as religion, and they are not a part of God’s plan for humanity. One of Inwagen’s objections is the theory of genetic and environmental relativity of religious perception and commitment. Explaining that if one was born into a non-Jewish family in Germany at the time of the war, then that individual may have ended up joining Hitler's youth. “The undoubted fact that one’s adherence to a system of political thought is conditioned by one’s upbringing is a reason for doubting that the political system one favors is—if not the uniquely “correct” one—clearly and markedly superior to its rivals”. Inwagen questions whether and how an individual's upbringing influences someone. He implies that although our upbringing can condition our perspectives, this is not necessarily a reason to doubt them. Hick responds that Inwagen fails to distinguish between influences that are unbiased and influences that threaten reason. Alvin Plantinga an American philosopher who works in the fields of philosophy of religion developed a similar view and also questions Hick's place and time of birth hypothesis, stating that for any belief that we hold, there are places and/or times that if we had been born then or there, we would not have held the view we do now. “No matter what philosophical and religious beliefs we hold…there are places and times such that if we had been born there and then, we would not have displayed the pattern of holding and withholding of religious and philosophical beliefs we do display”. Hick responds that his observation suggests that religious belief is not just influenced by an individual's upbringing but seems primarily determined by it.

Another objection to Hick's hypothesis is ‘the scandal of particularity which is how religious pluralism can be embraced without it being self-centered about the significance of adopting a particular religion over another. Christian particularity sees Jesus Christ as the only means of salvation, while religious pluralism claims this belief in invalid. By denying Christianity the right to claim that salvation is only acquired through Christianity and religious pluralism ultimately undermines its foundations. Therefore, Christianity is not unique in making claims about salvation and cannot be dismissed on the grounds of salvation as coming only through faith in Jesus Christ. However, Christian particularity does not deny the variety of world religions. Instead, it affirms that religious diversity exists while upholding the conviction that God has revealed Himself to humanity through Jesus Christ. “Since no man is excluded from calling upon God, the gate of salvation is open to all. There is nothing else to hinder us from entering, but our own unbelief”. It can be seen as arrogant about a particular religion claiming to be unique. For example the old anti-semitic line of Jews being described as God’s “chosen people” which can be seen as excluding to others, as if God examined various peoples around the world and specifically chose the Jews above all people. If the Jews were to claim this significance of being the ‘one’ people amongst all that God chose, it is understandable why it can be seen as wrong. If the Jews claimed that God had chosen them from among all the peoples of the earth because of their excellent qualities if they claimed to have been bested all the other peoples of the earth in a contest for God’s favor, although this is not the story the Jews tell.

Similarly, if the Catholic Church claims to be the unique instrument of salvation. However, Van Inwagen replies that the church did not invent itself. The Church is God’s creation, and that is what makes it a unique instrument of salvation. “Well, isn’t it fortunate for you that you just happen to be a member of this ‘unique instrument of salvation’ I suppose you realize that if you had been raised among Muslims, you would make similar claims for Islam”. This claim supposes why should being a part of a particular religion depend upon time and place of birth, this can be seen as unfair to those who are born at the wrong time and place to belong to it, and suppose God would want to make this salvation universally available to all people.       

07 July 2022
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