I had the chance to teach adult Sunday School this past weekend as we worked our way through Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christianity. We are up to Question 9 “the Pluralism Question”. I had looked forward to this all Summer.
Now unfortunately I did not have the time to cover some classics on the subject like:
- Variety of Religions Experience by William James
- The World’s Religions by Huston Smith
- The History of God by Karen Armstrong
What I was able to do is to build on the thought of folks like John Hick. In his famous works ,such as An Interpretation of Religions, Hick provides tour-de-force in the realm of comparative religion. He is not, however, simply reporting on religions – he is putting forward a theory about religions.
Many of Hick’s fans and critics alike end up saying the same two things when talking about him. The first is about the analogy of the mountain. The metaphor about many paths leading up the same mountain is a pluralistic classic. The second is about the blind men and the elephant. This is of course based on a Kantian dualism between the numenal and the phenomenological.
Religions are like blind men, each with their hand on a different part of the elephant and thus describing different aspects of the same reality. One has the trunk, one the ear and one the leg. They each talk as if they have grasped the whole but in reality, they have not. Though it may appear as if they are talking about very different things (a Christian from a Muslim or Hindu) they are actually all touching the same entity.
Critics of Hick seem to have two main critiques (I am being very general here):
The first is that analogy of ‘paths up the mountain’ is flawed. Religions are like different paths up different mountains. The mountains may all be in a range together – in that they have some similarities and are in proximity to each other – but essentially they are not all leading to the same place. Being a good Hindu, which may have some ethic overlap with say the Christian sermon on the mount, is still not the ultimately after the same thing. Religions do not all lead to the same place and so just walking on road for long enough does not guarantee arriving at the same destination.
The second concern is about the Kantian blind men and elephant. When one takes on this enlightened view, one is placed in an elevated position above the religious traditions. They think that have a grasp on the whole but in reality it is only a part (ear, trunk, leg). The Katian-Hickian at that point is in the real seat of truth. The question then, is why would anyone ever participate in any particular religion? Why even be a Christian – for example – and only grasp the part? Why not be a generic ‘God-ian’ and recognize the whole? In this way, studying religion is a way to not actually participate in any actual religion! Ironic isn’t it?
Here was my main point on Sunday: the problem is comparative religion itself. The very discipline that we end up being unsatisfied with contains within it (from the very beginning) the inherent problem that we end up being frustrated with.
The problem is this – comparative religion is a product of a Western approach (with its intrinsic dualism) that first imports and them imposes it categorization upon other traditions and then looks within that compartmentalization for points of similarity and contrast. This will never work.
What I ended up doing was pointing folks toward an innovative concept called ‘Comparative Theology: deep learning across religions borders’ developed by Clooney in the book “Comparative Theology”.
His point is that each tradition tells its own story – in its own words. The art then is not in compartmentalization but in humble listening. Each learning to hear each tradition-religion bring forward its own stories, teachings, practices and values we remove ourselves from being ‘over’ the religion as a judge/reporter and humbly place ourselves at the feet as a learner/listener or at the table as friend/partner.
I love Clooney’s approach. I find the epistemology and posture refreshing. I also think that in the inter-connected, trans-national, multi-religious 21st century it is going to be ever more critical to distance our selves from approaches of centuries past.
I have written before that I don’t want to apologize for being a Christian (I truly love it) but the time for apologetics is passing into the night of history. It’s a new day and a new approach is needed for the plurality and multiplicity that we increasingly live in. Many conservative christians hide behind exclusivism to guard against the threat of relativism. What I love about Clooney’s approach is that they are not asked to give up their internal belief as christians but are challenged to adjust their external posture toward those of other traditions.