Chapter 3: Similarities and Differences

Religion in an Age of Science
by Ian Barbour

Chapter 3: Similarities and Differences

The general structure of science has been described in terms of data, theory, models, and paradigms (or programs). A number of parallels in religion were proposed. We can now pursue some additional comparisons. There are indeed striking similarities, but also significant differences, and both need discussion if we are to represent these two areas of human life fairly. We must ask first about the character of historical inquiry, since nature itself is historical, as are the scientific and religious communities. Another question that has received extensive discussion in both science and religion is whether objectivity is possible if it is recognized that all knowledge is historically and culturally conditioned. A final question is whether we have to accept relativism if we abandon absolute claims. How might we respond to the challenge of religious pluralism today?


I. History in Science and Religion

A brief examination of the nature of historical inquiry can contribute to the comparison of the methods of science and religion. History is usually grouped in the curriculum with the humanities rather than with the social sciences because it deals with the unrepeatable ideas and actions of human agents. But there is today a new recognition of the importance of history in science. Nature is understood in historical and evolutionary terms, and science itself is acknowledged to be a historical and culturally conditioned enterprise. In addition, religious stories are related to particular events in history, and so we need to look at the relationships between story and history in religious thought.

1. Historical Explanation

How might one compare historical explanation with scientific explanation? Five distinctive features of historical explanation have been proposed.

1. The Interpretive Viewpoint

The interests and commitments of historians influence the way they select from among the myriad details those that might be relevant to a historical account. Changing cultural presuppositions also affect perceptions of what is significant in the social world. The historian Carl Becker writes, "The history of any event is never precisely the same to two different persons, and it is well known that every generation writes the same history in a new way, and puts upon it a new construction."1 A historical narrative has a coherence of meaningful patterns and unifying themes that are partly a product of the narrator’s vision. Meaning always depends on contexts; historical writing exhibits a dialectic between individual events and larger wholes. The American Civil War, for example, can be seen variously as part of the history of slavery or of federal union, states’ rights, regional economies, ethical concerns, or democratic ideals.

But despite the presence of interpretation, the historian cannot ignore the demands of objectivity understood as intersubjective testability. Scholarly integrity requires open-mindedness, self-criticism, and fidelity to evidence. The interaction among historians provides some correction for personal limitations and individual biases. There are common standards, which go beyond private judgment. Historians are held responsible by their colleagues to justify their inferences and conclusions by the citation of historical evidence. We can acknowledge such constraints while recognizing that the standards and methodological assumptions of historians, like those of every community of inquiry, reflect intellectual assumptions that vary among cultures and historical periods.

In historical inquiry, subjectivity and cultural relativism are more evident than in scientific inquiry, but I submit that this is a difference of degree rather than an absolute distinction. The data of science are theory-laden, while the events of history are interpretation-laden. Objective controls are less prominent and variations in individual and cultural interpretation are more evident as we move across the disciplinary spectrum from the natural sciences, through the social sciences and history, to religion. Such a continuum reveals significant differences, but no sharp lines can be drawn.

2. The Intentions of Agents

It has sometimes been said that to explain a human action means to account for it in terms of the ideas and choices of the actors. To answer the question "Why did Brutus kill Caesar?" one must study Brutus’s experiences, dispositions, loyalties, and motives. The philosopher William Dray writes, "There is a sense of ‘explain’ in which an action is only explained when it is seen in a context of rational deliberation, when it is seen from the point of view of an agent."2 R. G. Collingwood maintains that only by imaginative identification with persons in the past can the historian enter into the meanings and intentions that governed their actions. Only by sympathetic reenactment of past lives can we reconstruct them. Such empathy is possible because we are human beings ourselves; introspection and self-knowledge provides the basis of our understanding of other persons.3 The linguistic analysts, however, remind us that thought and language always occur in a social context. Individual actions must be understood in relation to the rules and expectations of the society in which they occurred, not in relation to our rules and expectations.4

If historical explanation were limited to accounts of the intentions of agents, it would exclude any history of nature. Some historians have in fact portrayed a strong contrast between history and science based on precisely this distinction. But the writings of historians include many pages with little or no reference to human intentions. They may portray social and economic forces of which the participants were unaware. Even in the lives of individuals, decisions may have been swayed by unconscious motives more than by rational ideas. If we recognize that diverse factors are at work in human history, we can speak also of the history of nature. We can see similarities as well as differences in comparing human history and natural history.

3. Particularity and Lawfulness

Typical explanations in science consist in showing that a given state of a system can be deduced from knowledge of a previous state, plus a set of general laws. Hempel insists that an event in history is explained only when it is similarly subsumed under a covering law: "General laws have quite analogous functions in history and in the natural sciences. In view of the structural equality of explanation and prediction, it may be said that an explanation is not complete unless it might as well have functioned as a prediction."5 Hempel claims that most historical accounts are "explanation sketches"; they could be made into genuine explanations only by adhering to the covering-law form. Scientific and historical explanation, he says, do not differ in principle, because only one kind of procedure is explanatory.

Dray and others have replied that historical inquiry inescapably involves singular statements about particulars. Every historical event is unique. Historians do not explain the Reformation by showing it to be a case of reformations-in-general. Generalizations about revolutions throw little light on the American, French, or Russian revolutions; it is precisely the peculiarities of the Russian Revolution -- the role of Lenin, let us say -- that are of interest. Even when historians do propose general hypotheses, says Dray, they are reluctant to detach them from the particulars in which they are embodied; the meaning is conveyed by the pattern of details, not extracted and presented independently. If historians are challenged, they do not invoke laws but fill in additional details in their narrative accounts. Historical explanation is a configurational understanding of the relation of parts in larger wholes. The historian tries to establish an intelligible context for an event rather than trying to deduce it from laws.6

It seems to me that both sides of this debate have overstated their cases. Every event is unique in some respects. No occurrence, even in the physics laboratory, is ever exactly duplicated in all its inexhaustible detail. But this does not exclude the presence of regular and repeatable features. On the other hand, no event is absolutely unique, even in history. The use of language presupposes common characteristics, such as those reflected in the words revolution, nation, and the like. The individuality of the exact pattern of weeds in the botanist’s garden is trivial, but the individuality of a great historical figure is interesting and important to us. Uniqueness, then, is relative to the purposes of inquiry, not a property of some events but not of other events.

Moreover, historians do use lawlike generalizations of limited temporal and geographical scope, even if they do not use universal laws. They explain particular actions in terms of the conventions and principles by which people at the time would have understood and justified their actions, and this requires generalizations about the culture and period in question (for example, the structures of feudalism in medieval France). In tracing connections between events, historians also draw on implicit generalizations about human motives for action. They are guided by parallels with patterns in other historical situations and by common-sense observations about human behavior. They may even use theories from sociology, psychology, or economics. While they are indeed interested in understanding particular events, they can do so only by pointing to relationships with which they are familiar in other similar situations.7

4. The Unpredictability of History

The limitations of the covering-law model are further underscored by the unpredictability of history. One source of unpredictability in practice is the occurrence of factors entering from outside a previously assumed framework of analysis: the microbe that brought Alexander the Great to an untimely death; the birth of a girl instead of a boy to Henry VIII; the storm that contributed to Cornwallis’s defeat at Yorktown; the stray bullet that killed Stonewall Jackson. Another source of unpredictability is human freedom and creativity. The Gettysburg address, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Newton’s Principia were products of the creativity of particular individuals at particular times and could not conceivably have been predicted in advance. Even when historians refer to the causes of an event, they do not give a set of sufficient conditions from which it could have been predicted but only a few of the contributing factors singled out in the light of the historian’s assumptions and interests.

Narratives of unpredictable events do indeed appear characteristic of human history, but they also appear in the history of nature. We will see in part 2 that there are irreducible unpredictabilities in quantum physics, thermodynamics, and genetic mutation and recombination. Unrepeatable events, which happened only once, are studied in cosmology, geology, and evolutionary biology. Why does the Indian rhinoceros have one horn and the African rhinoceros two? No one claims that such details of evolutionary history could possibly have been predicted. The laws of mechanics permit the prediction of the state of a system at one time from knowledge of its state at an earlier time, without any investigation of its intervening history. But DNA has a kind of historical memory representing the accumulation of information from many unpredictable events over a long span of time. Even a simple cell has the accumulated experience of a billion years of history encoded in its genes. We have biological theories to help explain regular patterns in these events, but the history of nature can be told only in narrative form.8

5. Diverse Types of Explanation

The previous points can be drawn together by suggesting that there is a variety of types of explanation within each of the disciplines. Historical inquiry and scientific inquiry are not mutually exclusive processes. Gordon Graham shows that there is both theoretical and historical explanation within science. In the former one appeals to general theories and laws, while in the latter one gives narratives of particulars.9 In dealing with human history, on the other hand, we can recognize many different kinds of connections between events. Sometimes historians refer to the intentions of agents, but at other times they invoke lawlike generalizations of limited scope or refer to economic and social forces or to theories derived from the social sciences. In the chapters that follow, then, we will give considerable attention to the history of nature, without denying the distinctive features of human history.

Stephen Toulmin says that a phenomenon is explained by placing it within a context that makes sense of the phenomenon. In the natural sciences, events are typically placed within the context of a law; a law is explained by situating it within a theory; and a theory is viewed within an "ideal of natural order." A historical event, he says, is explained by placing it within a series of events. A passage in a text is explained by considering its relation to the text as a whole. The various kinds of explanation and understanding thus each have a characteristic form of rationality.10

Phillip Clayton holds that an explanation makes some area of experience comprehensible, either in terms of its components and details or by placing it in a broader context within which its meaning and significance become clear. Thus different types of rationality operate in the natural sciences, the social sciences, and theology, but they are all rational because each discipline has criteria of judgment accepted by everyone in the discipline. Standards of intersubjective criticism make possible the discussion and revision of claims. Clayton contends that in theology the criterion of internal coherence is more relevant than the criterion of empirical fit. He accepts Lakatos’s argument that it is not isolated hypotheses that are evaluated but ongoing programs within historical contexts.11

We should note, finally, that these views allow us to do justice to the historical character of science. Instead of understanding science as a strictly logical enterprise, we have maintained that it is historically and culturally conditioned. The philosophy of science should be based on the history of science, not on idealized rational reconstructions. We have seen that Kuhn’s paradigm shifts must be considered historically and Lakatos’s programs can be evaluated only by their fruitfulness over a period of time. Toulmin applies evolutionary concepts to science itself. Scientific theories evolve; new ideas are like mutations which survive if they are selected by the scientific community. While there are limitations to this analogy, which I will point out later, it is a vivid representation of the historicity of science.

2. Story and History in Christianity

In the previous chapter we saw that stories are central in the life of religious communities. Recent exponents of narrative theology claim that biblical stories should be distinguished from both historical accounts and theological propositions. They insist that Christian convictions are communicated only by the biblical narrative itself. Let us consider the relation of story to history here.

One source of narrative theology is the writing of the literary critics, who insist that the meaning of a poem or story is carried by the text and cannot be extracted from it. Stories involve the interaction of characters and events. Often a plot moves over time through conflict toward resolution. Paul Ricoeur holds that it is the plot that makes a story an intelligible whole rather than a series of scattered events. Configurational patterns emerge among the events, even if surprises and contingencies rule out the possibility of predicting the Outcome. Here again we see a dialectic between the meaning of the part and the meaning of the whole; every event in a story must be viewed contextually.12

Beyond these general characteristics of stories, theologians have outlined three features of biblical stories.13

1. Canonical Story. The Bible contains many shorter narratives within an overarching story. Crucial turning points occur, especially in the Exodus and Easter events. David Tracy says that the story form is indispensable and carries a distinctive disclosive and transformative power.14 Hans Frei asserts that biblical narratives introduce God as a character in a set of stories. The character’s identity cannot be extracted from the story or expressed exhaustively in theological concepts. The gospel message, he says, cannot be separated from the biblical story, which is central in preaching and ritual.15 Other authors have pointed to Christ’s use of parables -- short stories that often present an unexpected reversal of values and a challenge to the hearer’s response and decision.16

2. Community Story. Stories create communities, and communities create stories, in an ongoing interaction. Religious communities transmit stories and traditions of interpretation and add new stories about their own struggles and experiences. The internal stories of a community carry the interpretive categories it uses to understand its present life.17 Stories are vehicles of self-understanding, but they also provide an impetus for action, for they affect emotions and motives more powerfully than conceptual propositions. Stories are vindicated by patterns of living, not by philosophical arguments. As the linguistic analysts have pointed out, the functions of stories in religious communities are very different from the functions of historical accounts among academic historians.

3. Personal Story The story of our lives is always related to the larger stories within which we see ourselves. Moreover, the stories of other persons lives disclose new possibilities for our own lives. In most of the stories of our culture, men have had the dominant roles, and women are now asserting that women must tell their own stories. James McClendon in Biography as Theology shows how our lives are challenged by the story of other lives, which were in turn inspired by scriptural stories. Martin Luther King, for example, understood himself in the light of the Exodus and the crucifixion, and these motifs of liberation and self-sacrifice come to us in turn through the story of King’s life, not through theological propositions.18 Stanley Hauerwas insists that stories change our attitudes and actions. Christian ethics do not consist of applying principles in discrete moments of decision but in our ongoing patterns of response shaped by stories. Character and vision are embodied in stories rather than in concepts or principles.19

I agree with these authors concerning the importance of biblical stories, but I believe that we also have to face the question of the veracity of historical claims. If no Exodus took place, and if Christ did not go willingly to his death, the power of the stories would be undermined. Moreover, the interpretation of particular biblical texts is not always obvious; there has been a continual process of interpretation and reinterpretation. Since the eighteenth century it has been widely recognized that the work of the theologian must take historical criticism into account. The existentialists have minimized the importance of historicity and have said that faith is individual decision and obedience in the present moment. But this neglects both the role of the community and the conviction that faith is a response to what God has done in the past.

The biblical stories of creation, covenant, and Christ differ greatly in their historicity. In chapter 5, I will argue that the stories of creation and fall should not be viewed as narratives of historical events. The Genesis story, I suggest, is a symbolic assertion of God’s relation to the world and of the ambivalence of human existence. Moses, however, was a historical figure, and the covenant at Sinai was based on historical events. But the story as we have it in Exodus was recorded many centuries later and reflects the experience of Israel during that interval. Most scholars hold, for example, that the Ten Commandments may go back to Moses’ day, but the long lists of detailed instructions for the rituals of the Jerusalem temple were of later origin.

Jesus of Nazareth was a historical person, and we have more historical information about him than we do about Moses. But in calling him Christ and in testifying to his redemptive role we are making statements of faith that are not historically provable, though they are related to historical evidence. The Gospels were written at least a generation after his death, and they reflect the experience and theological interpretations of the early Christian community. The theologian’s task goes beyond that of the historian, but the theologian cannot ignore historical research concerning the Bible and the events it narrates.

In addition to asking about the veracity of historical claims, the theologian must examine the validity of ontological claims implicit in the biblical story. The God of the Bible is also understood to be the God of nature and history and the Lord of our lives. If the Bible is the story of what God has done, we must ask how today in an age of science we may conceive of God’s action. This task requires the articulation of systematic theological concepts. The stories are the starting point of philosophical and theological reflection. The theologian must consider the coherence and validity of beliefs as well as the pragmatic effects and transformative power of the stories. Moreover, if we take stories alone, we end with total relativism. If each person or community lives in a particular story and there is no common story, there can be no communication. The use of stories alone hinders the search for common elements in the religious experience of diverse cultures.

Van Harvey suggests that we can never escape from the historically conditioned categories of a community of interpretation but we can partially transcend this limitation by imaginatively sharing in the outlook of other communities.20 Michael Goldberg holds that there can be rational discourse across story lines, exposing us to "the various ways the world might reasonably be envisaged, sensitizing us to the richness and complexity of the diverse possibilities for our lives."21 Starting from story and moving to history, philosophy, and theology, we do not escape the problems of cultural relativism, but we can enter forms of dialogue that are not possible if we stay within a story.


II. Objectivity and Relativism

We have seen that paradigms and theories influence scientific data. Paradigms and beliefs even more decisively shape the interpretation of religious experience and religious stories. Similar assertions have been made in more extreme form in recent writings on the social construction of science. Third World critics have maintained that economic and political interests affect the results of both scientific research and theological reflection. Feminist authors have shown that gender biases are prevalent in both fields. These diverse movements all criticize claims of objectivity and assert the cultural relativity of theories and beliefs. Are these more radical criticisms valid?

1. The Social Construction of Science

Popper upholds the traditional view of science as an autonomous rational enterprise following its own internal logic in testing hypotheses against reliable observations. Many scientists accept this view, both as an ideal to be sought and as a description of typical scientific practice. Kuhn does try to trace some external influences (including the metaphysical assumptions of the wider culture), but he deals for the most part with ideas within the scientific community. In the 1970s and 1980s, more radical challenges have arisen from several quarters. Not only are data theory-laden and theories paradigm-laden, but it now appears that paradigms are culture-laden and value-laden. Here Kuhn’s contextualism, relativism, and historicism are carried much farther.

One source of the new "externalist" accounts has been the social history of science, including studies of science as an institution in a cultural context. Another has been writings in the sociology of knowledge, especially those by Habermas and others in the Frankfurt school, who argue that ideological biases, intellectual assumptions, and political forces are at work in all inquiry. A related source is the Marxist thesis that economic and class interests lie at the root of all human social activity, including science. Science as a social reality is a source of power; power over nature becomes power over people. You might think that if you want to know how science works, you should ask scientists. Not at all, say the critics, for scientists will give you an idealized and selective reconstruction, a rationalization that justifies their interests in the guise of objectivity and autonomy. The myth of the neutrality of science allows it to be used to achieve the goals of those who hold power in society.22

Most scientists will grant that technology and applied science are controlled by government and industry, but they will argue that basic research ("pure science") maintains its independence. But the critics point out that this distinction is increasingly dubious. The time between a scientific discovery and an industrial application is often very short, as in the case of solid state physics or molecular biology, and so industry has a stake in basic research. Many fields of "big science" are capital-intensive, requiring expensive equipment and teams of scientists. The "industrialization of science" erodes its autonomy. Subsidy of basic science by government and by the military-industrial complex also extends far into the academic world.23

Many scientists will go a step further and grant that the selection of research problems and the direction and rate of advance in different areas of science are determined by political and economic forces. The setting of priorities and the allocation of limited funds are carried out by government and industry in accordance with social and institutional goals. Some kinds of problems are ignored, and others are given high priority. But even if the direction of scientific advance is socially managed, are not the actual discoveries of sciences objectively determined by nature?

Not so, say the authors in the social construction of science movement, especially the more extreme versions of the "strong program." The design of research is not given to us by nature. The kinds of question we ask, the type of explanation we seek, and even the criteria of rationality we use are all socially formed. Models often originate outside of science, as in Darwin’s chance reading of Malthus. Theories are underdetermined by data, and diverse theories may be consistent with the data. The cognitive and intellectual interests of scientists will affect their thought patterns. Personal motives, such as professional recognition and the securing of research grants, will tend to favor working within the prevailing paradigm. Institutions and individuals may have a greater stake in one theory than another. Rapid acceptance of a particular theory and resistance to a rival one may have complex social, political, and economic causes. Here is a cultural relativism that goes well beyond that suggested by Kuhn.24

Proponents of the "strong program" -- have supported their views with a variety of case studies, often based on careful historical research. Newtonian physics was more readily accepted because a mechanistic view of nature excluded the pantheistic and occult philosophies associated with alchemy and astrology. Maxwell’s electromagnetic theory of the ether was welcomed because it seemed to provide an antidote to the philosophy of materialism.25 One author argues that the indeterminism of quantum theory in the Weimar Republic was influenced by the romanticism and anarchism of postwar Germany.26 Studies of scientific disputes reveal complex reasons for favoring one theory over another when the evidence is ambiguous, as in quark theory in physics from 1974 to 1976, following the discovery of the J-psi particle.27

These various delineations of extrascientific factors are a valuable corrective to the "internalist" view of an autonomous, rational, scientific community. But in the history of ideas the causal or explanatory role of interests is often speculative and difficult to document. I believe these authors lean too far toward relativism and underestimate the constraints placed on theories by the data arising from our interaction with nature. Their interpretation of science fails to account for its success in making predictions and generating applications. Ideologies and interests are often present, but their distorting influence can be reduced by using the criteria mentioned earlier, especially the testing of theories against data. Extrascientific input is indeed evident in the imaginative origination of theories, but it is less evident in their subsequent justification. Finally, the extreme relativists are inconsistent, for they assert that their own analysis is valid for all cultures. Their own claims somehow escape the charges of cultural relativism of which everyone else is accused.

2. Third World Critiques

A critique of Western science similar to that of the "strong program" was given by several delegates from the Third World at a conference sponsored by the World Council of Churches at MIT. They claimed that science today predominantly serves the interests of the rich nations, not those that are poor and oppressed. Scientific resources are distributed in radically unequal ways, with only 3 or 4 percent of the world’s research and development funds aimed at problems typical of developing nations. Medical research is mostly directed at the diseases of the affluent, with little going to tropical diseases that affect a far larger population. The technologies transferred to developing countries have frequently not been appropriate for their situation. Most of these critics referred to problem selection or technological application, but some discussed Western biases in scientific concepts and theories.28

Might there be a distinctively different science in an Asian or African culture? Most scientists would quickly dismiss the idea. They would assert that the laws of nature are universal and that scientific meetings and publications are international. Historical evidence provides no clear answer, since modern science arose in the West and was then transplanted to other cultures; indigenous forms of inquiry were not developed. Most non-Western scientists or their teachers were trained in the West and write for journals published in the West. In another culture, physics would perhaps not have been the first science to be established, despite the fact that the phenomena it studies are in some ways simpler than those of other sciences. Would another culture have escaped reductionism and maintained a more holistic approach in both experiment and theory -- or might it still do so in the future? Some adherents of Eastern religions think so, as we will see in the next chapter. Science does contribute to the most general categories of interpretation, which are systematically explored in metaphysics, but the metaphysical assumptions of a culture also influence the character of scientific paradigms, as Kuhn recognized. In short, I believe that culture does influence paradigms in all the sciences, but I do not think that this implies incommensurability or unrestrained cultural relativism.

Third World authors, especially advocates of liberation theology, have similarly criticized the biases they see in Western religious thought. They maintain that all theology is written from a social location, which influences perception and interpretation. What we see depends on where we stand. In the past, theology has usually legitimated existing power structures, and its purported political neutrality has perpetuated the status quo. Gustavo Gutiérrez proposes that theology should be based on an interplay of theory and action; it should be critical reflection on the church’s engagement in the world. We have to start from the gospel and also from our own historical situation. In Latin America, that situation is one of abject poverty, the product of a long history of colonialism, repressive local governments allied with the rich, and continued dependence on an international economy from which affluent nations have been the main beneficiaries.29

The liberation theologians hold that we all read scripture selectively. From the Third World perspective, God is primarily Liberator. The Exodus motif is central. God liberated the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and continues to side with the poor and oppressed, not the privileged. For the prophets, "to know God is to do justice." In his first sermon, Jesus quoted Isaiah: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. . . . to set at liberty those who are oppressed" (Luke 4:18). According to liberation theology, the Christian is called to solidarity with the poor and to the struggle to change unjust and dehumanizing economic and political structures. The gospel is a message of liberation, not only from individual sin, but from the social sins of exploitative institutions. Individuals feel helpless, but they can be empowered by God and can work through small grass-roots religious groups ("base communities") and political movements. Most liberation theologians advocate some form of socialism as the only possible path to social justice in their historical situation.

Liberation theology has been criticized for its indebtedness to Marxism and its tendency to condone violence and revolution. But most theologians who accept the Marxist analysis of economic exploitation do not accept other tenets of Marxism. They also point to the protracted covert violence of the status quo, and they give diverse assessments of the circumstances in which revolution might be justified; many of them acknowledge that a revolutionary government might impose new forms of oppression.30 But our concern here is with the liberation theologians’ insistence that all theology is culture-laden and reflects economic and political interests. Black theologians in the United States have asserted that Christian theology has reflected racial as well as economic biases.31 Here, too, is a thesis on the social construction of theology resembling the thesis that science is a social construction.

3. Feminist Critiques

In a similar way, feminists have analyzed the presence of gender biases in both science and religion. Their critique of science occurs on several levels. They state concerns about equal access for women in science education and employment, studying overt and covert forms of discrimination in schools and on the job. Next are criticisms of gender biases in the selection of problems for research, especially in biology and the health sciences. A more fundamental criticism is that male biases have affected scientific theories and interpretation of data. One example is the assumption by Darwin and his successors that competition and struggle are the main forces in natural selection ("the survival of the fittest"). This assumption seems to have reflected the bias of a male-dominated culture, which valued competition. Only much later was it recognized that cooperation and symbiosis are often crucial in evolutionary survival. More blatant examples of gender bias are evident in studies on the biological basis of sex differences, such as claims that there is a neurological difference between the sexes in brain lateralization and that this accounts for the purportedly innate superiority of males in mathematics and spatial visualization.32

Helen Longino, a philosopher of science, holds that a feminist perspective can contribute to objectivity in science by facilitating the critique of auxiliary hypotheses and by suggesting alternative ones. For example, it has often been said that "man the hunter" was the key to the evolution of the earliest humans from primates and hominids. Male hunting would have encouraged tool use, upright posture, and mental capacities. But did not women use similar capacities as gatherers and nurturers? Longino holds that in our culture science reflects gender-related preferences in the choice of problems, models, and concepts, which affect the content as well as the practice of science.33

Evelyn Fox Keller has described Barbara McClintock’s work on genetic transposition, which waited thirty years for recognition and eventually received a Nobel Prize. McClintock was unable to find a university job, and after she found a research post, her ideas were considered unorthodox. The "central dogma" of molecular biology had posited a one-way transfer of information: always from DNA, never to it (except by natural selection). While most research was being done on genetic structure, McClintock was interested in function and organization and the relation of genes to cells, organisms, and developmental patterns. Her work on transposition was finally vindicated, and the idea that the wider environment could indirectly affect genetic changes (though not directly, as Lamarck had thought) was finally accepted. Keller portrays McClintock’s painstaking attention to small variations and anomalies (such as a few corn kernels with colors different from the others), and her "feeling for the organism" -- not implying a mystic intuition but rather a sense of humility and a "listening to the material." Keller says we should not see this as "feminist science," but she thinks McClintock’s "outsider" role and her distinctive attitudes may have given her a greater freedom to consider diverse kinds of interrelationship.34

All of these authors seek a gender-free science within the prevailing norms of scientific objectivity. Male biases are to be rejected not simply because they are patriarchal but because they are "bad science," and they can be corrected by a greater commitment to objectivity and openness to evidence. But some feminists go much further in advocating a new "feminist science" and in rejecting objectivity itself as a male ideology. If there can be no value neutrality in science, then one can only seek a differently gendered science, accepting the inevitability of relativism. Sandra Harding calls this "feminist postmodernism," describing it as skeptical about the possibility of value neutrality, rationality, and objectivity. She concludes, "It has been and should be moral and political beliefs that direct the development of both the intellectual and social structures of science. The problematics, concepts, theories, methodologies, interpretations of experiments, and uses have been and should be selected with moral and political goals in mind, not merely cognitive ones."35

These more radical critiques arise partly from considering the dualisms that have been so pervasive in Western thought: mind/body, reason/emotion, objectivity/subjectivity, domination/submission, impersonal/personal, power/love. In each case, the first term has been identified in our culture as male, the second as female. But precisely these first terms are taken to characterize science: mind, reason, objectivity, domination, impersonality, power. Science is stereotypically male, and nature is referred to in female images. Bacon spoke of nature as the mind’s bride: "Make her your slave, conquer and subdue her." In a patriarchal society, the exploitation of women and nature have a common ideological root. In this interpretation, scientists share these alienating and manipulative attitudes when they make control and prediction, rather than understanding, their goal.36 Another source of radical critiques is the psychoanalytic theory claiming that a growing girl achieves selfhood by identifying with her mother, while a growing boy does so by separating from his mother -- leading men to value separation, independence, objectivity, and power, the attitudes typical of contemporary science.37

I cannot agree with those postmodernist feminists web recommend that we should reject objectivity and accept relativism. Western thought has indeed been dualistic, and men have perhaps been particularly prone to dichotomize experience. But the answer surely is to try to avoid dichotomies, not merely to relativize them. Nor do we want to perpetuate them in inverted form by rejecting the first term and affirming the second in each polarity. Such a move would be shortsighted, even as a temporary corrective strategy, if we seek to acknowledge the wholeness of life. We can grant that our inquiry is not free of values and interests without having to adopt an anarchic relativism. As Keller says, "Science is neither a mirror of nature nor simply a reflection of culture." If we insist that objectivity is a product of male consciousness, we deny the possibility of a feminist voice within current science. Moreover, no clear proposal for an alternative feminist science has been spelled out.

We also need to ask what people mean by objectivity and decide which of these ideas we can affirm as valid ideals for science, whether or not they are adhered to in current practice. Two of these meanings of objectivity I would defend: (1) Data should be intersubjectively reproducible, even though they are theory-laden, and (2) criteria should be impartial and shared by the community of inquiry, even though they are difficult to apply. But two other ideas seem to me dubious. First, objectivity cannot mean that theories are determined only by the object, for we have said repeatedly that data are theory-laden and that we cannot separate the subject and the object in an experiment. Inquiry involves participation and interaction, not detachment. Second, objectivity does not imply reductionism, as if the physicochemical laws of the component parts were more valid as explanations than attempts to describe the higher-level activities of integrated wholes. Holistic thinking is not limited to women, but it appears that in our culture women may be more sensitive than men to connections, contexts, and interdependencies and more attuned to development, cooperation and symbiosis. There may be a biological basis for some of these gender differences, but they are mainly attributable to cultural patterns of socialization.

In religion, too, feminist critiques have occurred at a variety of levels. Some authors express concern about equal access to education and employment, including the ordination of women. But the more fundamental critique is of gender biases in concepts and beliefs. Reformers seek an equal-gendered Christianity or Judaism, and radicals believe the inherited traditions are so inherently patriarchal that they should be rejected.

The reformist feminists agree that Christianity and Judaism have been strongly patriarchal in both practice and thought. Religious leadership and images of God have been overwhelmingly male and have supported male domination in society. But the reformers argue that the essential biblical message is not patriarchal. female images of God appear in the Bible, though rarely. Isaiah asserts that God will not forget Israel: "Can a woman-forget her suckling child?" (Isa. 49:15). Individual women figure significantly in the Bible: Deborah, Esther, Ruth, and of course Mary, as well as such later saints as St. Teresa of Avila and Julian of Norwich. Jesus was not sexist, and he exhibited the virtues stereotyped as "feminine," such as love and emotion, as much as the "masculine" virtues of courage and leadership.38 Contemporary feminists seek inclusive language, not only for brothers and sisters in the church, but for a God who is like a mother as well as like a father, as we have seen in Sallie Mcfague’s writing.

The theologian Rosemary Ruether sharply criticizes patriarchal assumptions in the Catholic tradition, but she believes the church’s essential message can be reformulated in nonsexist terms. The mind/body dualism, in particular, came into Christian thought less from biblical than from Neoplatonic sources, and it can be replaced with a more biblical vision of the whole person in community. Ruether brings together the central concerns of feminist theology, liberation theology, and the ecology movement. She holds that all three are opposed to dualism, hierarchy, and domination. She seeks a more participatory epistemology and an inclusive and equitable social order, combining social justice with concern for nature and nonhuman life. She has given a powerful critique of traditional Christianity without completely rejecting it.39

The radical feminists, on the other hand, hold that the biblical tradition is incurably patriarchal and that new religious forms must be sought outside the church. The starting point must be such distinctive experiences of women as sisterhood, pregnancy, and motherhood, as well as the experiences considered inferior in a patriarchal culture: intuition, emotion, the body, and harmony with nature. In addition, the new approach must be based on the liberation and empowerment made possible by women’s self-definition, self-expression, support groups, and solidarity with other oppressed groups (though progress in moving beyond a white, middle-class movement has been slow). Some radical feminists have developed new religious rituals for women. Others have drawn from goddess and Earth Mother myths in early cultures to provide female symbols of the divine. Another alternative is to symbolize the ultimate as impersonal -- as the Ground of Being, for instance -- which avoids attribution of gender.40

As in the case of proposals for a feminist science, I disagree with those radical feminists who perpetuate dualistic thinking by inverting the prevailing cultural dualisms. In both cases, the effort to eliminate what is invalid in the tradition can result in eliminating whatever is valid in it also. Absolutizing the feminine seems as dubious as absolutizing the masculine. Surely the goal should be for each of us as men and women to express all our diverse capacities, whether stereotyped in our culture as male or female -- and to symbolize the same diversity of creative characteristics in our models of God.


III. Religious Pluralism

Despite the influence of cultural assumptions on scientific paradigms, there is substantial agreement among scientists around the world concerning theories and data. Religious pluralism is a more serious problem in a global age. Agreement is more elusive, and the consequences of disagreement are sometimes more disastrous. What are we to make of the diversity of interpretations of religious experience? Can we find a middle ground between absolutism in religious claims and total relativism? Are there any criteria that can be applied cross-culturally in evaluating religious traditions?

1. The Interpretation of Religious Experience

How should we view cultural relativism in the interpretation of religious experience? Some people have argued that it is not really a serious problem. Richard Swinburne says that we ordinarily accept people’s reports of what they claim to have experienced, unless there are grounds for thinking that their testimony is unreliable or their claims implausible. Similarly, says Swinburne, when persons say they have an awareness of God, both they and other people should accept this at face value unless there are strong grounds to doubt it. "From all this, of course, it follows that if it seems to me that I have a glimpse of Nirvana or a vision of God, that is good grounds for me to suppose that I do. And, more generally, the occurrence of religious experiences is prima facie reason for all to believe in that of which the experience was purportedly an experience."41 He grants that some experiences are deceptive and that we use cultural concepts to describe all experience; religious testimony, in particular, produces conflicting claims. But the basic religious experiences are rather similar, and the burden of proof should rest on the skeptic. Swinburne concludes that "religious perceptual claims deserve to be taken as seriously as perceptual claims of any other kind."

William Alston maintains that we accept sense experience as evidence of an independently existing object if (1) the experience occurs under favorable circumstances, and (2) the interpretation is consistent with other beliefs. The acceptance can be overridden if it is not consistent with other beliefs (for example, we question our perception that the moon is larger near the horizon). Alston says that similar conditions apply to the interpretation of religious experience. We should acknowledge the favorable circumstances provided by the spiritual disciplines undertaken by the masters of the religious life. And we can test their conclusions against a larger framework of beliefs. But Alston grants that there are greater cultural variations in religious experience than the cultural variations in sense experience that anthropologists have reported. 42

Steven Katz, at the opposite extreme, says that a report of religious experience is determinatively shaped by the concepts a person brings to it. He examines mystical writings in various traditions and is impressed by their diversity. For example, Jewish mysticism does not involve loss of identity in the experience of unity but preserves a sense of God’s other-ness. Belief in a personal God and in the importance of ritual and ethical action is simply assumed. "The mystic brings to his experience a world of concepts, images, symbols and values which shape as well as color the experience he eventually and actually has."43 Prior expectations impose both form and content on experience; we cannot say there is a universal experience which is then interpreted by diverse cultural concepts. The symbols of religious communities are at work before, during, and after the experience. Buddhists hold that suffering and impermanence are the basic human problem, and therefore they seek liberation from suffering. Christians believe that sin is our basic problem, and they seek forgiveness and unity with God.

Peter Donovan takes an intermediate position. He argues that in religion, as in science, there is no neutral description without interpretation. "All that theoretical background is not found in the experience itself, but is brought to it by way of interpretation, making it the experience it is."44 Experience can indeed support an overall theoretical scheme, but "one’s estimate of the value of any particular experience will depend on how one evaluates the total belief system in terms of which the experience is thought to be significant."45 Donovan holds that particular experiences, even those that are life transforming, must be systematically related to a coherent conceptual framework, which is judged as a whole.

In a similar vein Ninian Smart points to common elements in the reports of mystics but acknowledges that they diverge in doctrinal interpretation.

The fact that mysticism is substantially the same in different cultures and religions does not, however, entail that there is a "perennial philosophy" common to mystics. Their doctrines are determined partly by facts other than mystical experience itself. . . . The distinction between experience and interpretation is not clear-cut. The reason for this is that the concepts used in describing and explaining an experience vary in their degree of ramification. That is to say, where a concept occurs as part of a doctrinal scheme it gains its meaning in part from a range of doctrinal statements taken to be true.46

Smart recommends that we use low-level descriptive terms, with minimal doctrinal ramification, to try to formulate a more phenomenological account on which both the mystic and other persons can concur. This would be consistent with my own view that the distinction between experience and interpretation, like that between data and theory in science, is never absolute; in both cases the distinction is relative and is drawn at differing points at various times for particular purposes.

If there is no uninterpreted experience, there can be no immediate religious knowledge, no "self-authenticating" awareness of God, no incorrigible intuition for which finality may be claimed. For when interpretation is present there is always the possibility of misinterpretation, especially through wishful thinking, which reads into experience more than is warranted. Nor can there be any certain inference from experience to a Being who is its independent cause. Even the sense of confrontation and encounter is no guarantee of the existence of a source beyond us.47

The key question is whether religious experience exercises any control on interpretation. A set of basic beliefs has the tendency to produce experiences that can be cited in support of those beliefs, which are then self-confirming. A suggestible person may experience what he or she has been taught to expect. Yet people also have unexpected and surprising experiences that challenge their previous assumptions and lead them to reformulate their beliefs.

We can deny that God is an immediate and uninterpreted datum without going to the opposite extreme of saying that God is only inferred, without being experienced. To make God a hypothesis to be tested or a conclusion of an argument (as in the argument from design) is to lose the experiential basis of religion. In my view, God is known through interpreted experience.48 Our knowledge of God is like knowledge of another self in being neither an immediate datum nor an inference. Another self is not immediately experienced; it must express itself through various media of language and action, which we interpret. Yet we do not merely infer that another self is present; as a precondition for taking words and gestures as expressions of purpose and intention we must already understand ourselves to be dealing with another self.49 Members of religious communities similarly understand themselves to be dealing with God; such an understanding is so basic that it may seem almost as much a part of interpreted experience as encounter with another self.

I conclude that beliefs are both brought to religious experience and derived from it. Religion, more than science, is influenced "from the top down," from paradigms, through interpretive beliefs, to experience. But the influence "from the bottom up," starting from experience, is not totally absent in religion. Although there is no neutral descriptive language, there are degrees of interpretation. Thus members of various religious traditions can communicate even though they are dependent on culturally formed languages.

2. Between Absolutism and Relativism

Religious communities have varied widely in their attitudes toward other religions. We can distinguish five types of attitudes.50

1. Absolutism

Here the claim is that there is only one true religion and all others are simply false. There is one exclusive path to salvation. Judaism always balanced the particularism of the covenant with Israel and the idea of the chosen people with the universalism of the covenant with Noah, and salvation was never restricted to Jews. In Christianity, the uniqueness of the incarnation was the basis for the traditional assertion that salvation is possible only through Christ. Roman Catholicism expressed it classically as, "Outside the church, no salvation." In Protestant fundamentalism, exclusivism is based on the idea of a uniquely revealed book.

Critics of this position hold that it absolutizes finite expressions of the infinite, whether in an institution, a book, or a set of doctrines. They also point out that such views have led to intolerance, crusades, inquisitions, religious wars, and the rationalization of colonialism. The grim history of Christian persecution of Jews is one consequence of such absolutism. Religious imperialism is particularly dangerous in a nuclear age.

2. Approximations of Truth

In this view other religions are believed to hold elements of the truth that is more fully presented in one’s own tradition. Christianity is said to be the fulfillment of what is implicit or only partially understood in other religions. God is at work in these other traditions, which are genuine responses to God and real ways of salvation for their adherents, despite their limitations. There are prefigurations of Christ, not just in the Old Testament (Hebrew Scriptures), but in all the major world religions. This is a common view in Protestant liberalism. Catholic authors since Vatican II have said that in other traditions there is "the hidden Christ" (Raymond Panikkar), "the anonymous Christian" (Karl Rahner), or (in an older terminology) "the latent church," whereby the salvation won by Christ is available to all humankind. As Rahner puts it, "There are many ways, but one norm.

This view goes far toward mitigating the intolerance of the first position. However, it tends to be somewhat condescending toward other traditions. Presumably it would see no value in dialogue except to persuade the other party. We have nothing to learn if our tradition already possesses the full truth, which is only partially available elsewhere.

3. Identity of Essence

Perhaps all religions are basically the same, though expressed in differing cultural forms. To some writers, the central religious experience is mysticism, in which there is awareness of the unity of all things (as in Aldous Huxley’s "perennial philosophy"). To others, the feeling of absolute dependence (Schleiermacher) or the numinous power of the holy (Otto) is the essence of religion. Doctrines are looked on as symbolic statements of inner experiences, which are what is important religiously. In this view, we should all agree on the common core, without claiming that one set of doctrines is superior to another. This would encourage us to work for the emergence of a global religion, in which no one group would impose its views on others.

The problem with this position is that there is disagreement as to what the common essence is. Moreover, a rich diversity exists within every tradition as well as among traditions. A watered-down global religion would have to rely on private experiences and abstract ideas, stripped of all the historical memories, communal stories and rituals, and particular patterns of behavior found in actual religious communities.

4. Cultural Relativism

Anthropologists study cultures in their totality, and they view religion as an expression of a culture. Each religion functions in its own cultural setting. Linguistic analysts hold that religious symbols and concepts shape our experience; since cultural and linguistic forms vary widely, it is not surprising that there is great diversity in religious experience. Forms of life and their associated "language games" are self-contained, culturally relative, and incommensurable. The primary religious language is "prayer, praise and preaching," while both doctrine and experience are secondary (Lindbeck). Here the central place of particular stories and rituals in worship and practice can be appreciated.

The great strength of linguistic analysis is its recognition of the multiple functions of religion as a way of life. Moreover, a relativistic approach clearly avoids the problems presented by claims of superiority and claims of identity. It affirms the particularity of each tradition as well as its internal diversity. But it also makes the study of another religion of limited relevance, since it must be understood as part of its cultural system. Little can be learned that might illuminate our lives in our own cultural setting. Any beliefs claiming to be true must be discounted, and there is no motive to try to transcend the limitations and blind spots of our own culture. There is no basis for criticism of one’s own culture. Acceptance of tradition would predominate over critical reflection and reformulation.

5. Pluralistic Dialogue

The starting point here is affirmation of the presence of God in the faith and life of persons in other traditions. We can be open to the diverse ways of being human and recognize that there are diverse possibilities for our own lives. We can be sensitive to persons in other cultures and try to see the world from their point of view, even though we can never totally leave behind our cultural assumptions. We can take a confessional approach and testify to what has happened in our own lives, without passing judgment on others. Loyalty to our own tradition can be combined with respect for other traditions. This view offers a stronger basis for genuine dialogue and mutual learning than any of the alternatives above.

As an example of this position, consider the writings of John Hick, who holds that "God has many names." The divine reality is encountered, conceptualized, and responded to in multiple ways. "These different human awarenesses of the Eternal One represent different culturally conditioned perceptions of the same infinite divine reality."51 Hick says that religious traditions are like reports from explorers of a Himalayan mountain whose higher altitudes are always hidden in the clouds. The explorers have taken different routes and have different impressions of the mountain from varying perspectives, and none has reached the top. But Hick goes beyond this analogy in proposing that divine initiative has been revealed within many traditions, in the framework of the cultural assumptions of each. The variety of traditions exhibit multiple forms of revelation as well as differences in human perception.

Moreover, says Hick, salvation occurs within many traditions. Here he is referring not to eternal life but to the transformation of personal existence in this life, "the transformation from self-centeredness to Reality centeredness," variously referred to as salvation, fulfillment, liberation, or enlightenment. The spiritual and moral fruits of such changes are not confined to any one religion. Each tradition can be effective in the lives of persons who have been spiritually formed by it. We should each be loyal to our own heritage:

We can revere Christ as the one through whom we have found salvation, without having to deny other points of reported contact between God and man. We can commend the way of Christian faith without having to discommend other ways of faith. We can say that there is salvation in Christ, without having to say there is no salvation other than in Christ.52

In common with the Identity of Essence position, Hick holds that there is a common object of devotion in all religions. However, he differs in emphasizing the influence of cultural traditions on experience as well as on doctrinal interpretation. He also welcomes diversity and commitment to particular traditions, rather than the search for a single global religion. He agrees with Cultural Relativism in acknowledging the formative influence of culture and language. Moreover, his insistence that the heart of religion is personal transformation rather than doctrine is consistent with relativism. He sees no necessary conflict between differing means of transformation in diverse cultures, whereas doctrines make mutually exclusive claims. But Hick avoids a total relativism by affirming a transcendent reality beyond the variations of culture and by advocating an epistemology in which religious language can make cognitive claims, even though they are always partial, symbolic, and tradition-laden.

In his treatment of Christ, Hick starts on common ground with the Approximations of Truth school, but in the end he departs from it. How might we compare Christ with Old Testament prophets, Christian saints, or founders and leading figures in other world religions? Hick cites several authors who defend the uniqueness of Christ but who understand that uniqueness as a difference in degree and in relationship to God, rather than as an absolute difference in kind or in metaphysical substance and nature. He accepts the preeminence of Christ as the definitive expression of God’s presence for himself as a Christian. But he affirms the possibility that people in other traditions may find definitive expressions elsewhere.53

This fifth position, then, goes beyond tolerance of other positions to advocate dialogue that may be mutually enriching. If we are open to new insights, we can learn from other religions and perhaps come to appreciate aspects of the divine and potentialities for human life that we have ignored. Thus Hick thinks that Christianity has had a positive influence on Hinduism in encouraging a greater concern for social justice, while the current interest in meditation among Christians is in part indebted to Hinduism. Again, Buddhism has less frequently been associated with imperialism and warfare than Christianity and has shown a greater respect for nature; but Christianity seems to have provided greater impetus for material progress and social change. Exposure to another religion can also lead us to rediscover neglected themes in our own heritage.54

A similar view is developed by Paul Knitter, who holds that one can accept the possibility of other saviors without undermining commitment to Christ. Christ is God’s revelation, but not the only one. The Christian vision can be decisive for us, he says, but we do not need to pass judgment on other visions. Ultimate reality is perceived in differing ways and interpreted in varying symbols among the diverse religious traditions. Knitter suggests that people should be encouraged toward a deeper experience within their own tradition and at the same time be open to dialogue with other traditions. Instead of being a source of conflict and fragmentation, religion could then be a powerful force for global unity.55

3. Conclusions

Religion is indeed a way of life. Religious language serves diverse functions, many of which have no parallel in science. It encourages ethical attitudes and behavior. It evokes feelings and emotions. Its typical forms are worship and meditation. Above all, its goal is to effect personal transformation and reorientation (salvation, fulfillment, liberation, or enlightenment). All of these aspects of religion require more total personal involvement than does scientific activity, affecting more diverse aspects of personality. Religion also fills psychological needs, including integration of personality and the envisioning of a larger framework of meaning and purpose. Many of these goals are fulfilled primarily through religious experience, story, and ritual.

In all these functions, the use of language is noncognitive and no explicit propositional assertions about reality are made. Yet each function presupposes cognitive beliefs and assertions. The appropriateness of a way of life, an ethical norm, a pattern of worship, a particular understanding of salvation, or a framework of meaning depends in each case on beliefs about the character of ultimate reality.

Let us look again at the four criteria presented in the previous chapter considering first their use within a religious tradition or paradigm community.

1. Agreement with Data, It is sometimes said that the distinctive feature of science is that from theories one can make predictions, which can be tested in controlled experiments. But not all sciences are predictive and experimental. Geology and astronomy are based on observations rather than experiments; in geology there are no predictions (though aspects of present or past states could have been predicted from earlier states). We have said that evolutionary history could not have been predicted in detail, and only certain portions of evolutionary theory can be tested experimentally. In science, then, we should talk about the intersubjective testing of theories against various kinds of data, with all the qualifications suggested earlier about theory-laden data, paradigm-laden theories, and culture-laden paradigms. Moreover, we have seen that because auxiliary hypotheses can usually be adjusted, we must reject any simple notion of verification and falsification.

In religion, the intersubjective testing of beliefs does occur within religious communities, and it provides some protection against arbitrariness and individual subjectivity. The interpretation of initiating events, formative experiences, and subsequent individual and communal experiences goes through a long process of testing, filtering, and public validation in the history of the community. Some experiences recur and are accepted as normative, others are reinterpreted, ignored, or discounted. But clearly the testing process is far less rigorous than in science, and religious communities are not as intercultural as scientific communities.

2. Coherence. Consistency with accepted theories and internal coherence are sought in science. We have learned from Lakatos that the continuity of a research program is maintained by commitment to its central core, which is protected by making modifications in auxiliary hypotheses. Religious beliefs, too, are judged by their consistency with the central core of a tradition, but here the core is correlated with story and ritual. The interpretation of story and ritual involves auxiliary hypotheses that are subject to modification. Anomalies can be tolerated for considerable periods, but the capacity to respond to them creatively without undermining the central core is a sign of the vitality of a program. Theological formulations are corrigible and have changed substantially in the course of history. New principles of scriptural interpretation and new concepts of God are characteristic of the modern period. More recently, feminist and Third World writers have helped us see some of the biases in the classical tradition. Theology as critical reflection is also concerned about the coherence and systematic interconnection of beliefs.

3. Scope. A scientific theory is more secure if it is broad in scope and extensible, correlating diverse types of phenomena in domains different from those in which the theory was first developed. Religious beliefs, too, can be judged by their comprehensiveness in offering a coherent account of diverse kinds of experience, beyond the primary experiences from which they arose. Religious beliefs must be consistent with the well-supported findings of science, and this may sometimes require the reformulation of theological auxiliary hypotheses, as we will see in subsequent chapters. Religious beliefs can also contribute to a comprehensive metaphysics, though they are not the only source of such wider integrative frameworks that are broader than either science or religion. Metaphysical assumptions in turn feed back to affect paradigms in religion, as they do in science.

4. Fertility. Theories in science are judged by their achievement and promise in contributing to the vitality of an ongoing program over a period of time. In line with the goals of science, scientific fertility refers to the ability to stimulate theoretical development and experimental research. Religion has more diverse goals, so fertility here has many facets. It includes the capacity to stimulate creative theological reflection. But it also includes evidence of power to nourish religious experience and to effect personal transformation. Beyond this, fertility includes evidence of desirable influence on human character and the motivation to sustain ethical action. The apostle Paul said that "the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control" (Gal. 5:22). The philosopher William James discusses saintliness as one criterion. We can also ask about practical implications for the most urgent problems of our time, such as the ecological and nuclear crises. Criteria for evaluating such individual and social consequences are of course strongly paradigm-dependent.

In short, religion cannot claim to be scientific or to be able to conform to the standards of science. But it can exemplify some of the same spirit of inquiry found in science. If theology is critical reflection on the life and thought of the religious community, it is always revisable and corrigible. There are no controlled experiments, but there is a process of testing in the life of the community, and there should be a continual demand that our concepts and beliefs be closely related to what we have experienced. There is no proof, but there is a cumulative case from converging lines of argument. Rational argument in theology is not a single sequence of ideas, like a chain that is as weak as its weakest link. Instead, it is woven of many strands, like a cable many times stronger than its strongest strand.56 Or, to use an analogy introduced earlier, religious beliefs are like an interlocking network which is not floating freely but is connected at many points to the experience of the community.

Can these same criteria be applied to comparative judgments between religious traditions? Ninian Smart refers to world religions as "experiments in living."57 Could one ask about their comparative success as experiments in living? By the first criterion above, it appears that each set of religious beliefs is in agreement with experience, but each focuses selectively on particular types of experience. Next, each has elaborated beliefs that are coherent, consistent with its heritage, and expressive of its stories and rituals. Moreover, thinkers in each tradition have worked out comprehensive conceptual systems of wide scope. The transformation of personal life has occurred in varying degrees within all the major religious traditions.

When it comes to ethical consequences, there seem to be saints and hypocrites around the world. The ideal of love may be extolled in each tradition, but it has been realized only by rare individuals or in monastic orders and relatively small, dedicated communities -- though the ideal may have affected the lives of millions. The actual history of each tradition has seen violence, cruelty, and greed as well as compassion, reconciliation, and dedication to justice. Each heritage seems to have its characteristic strengths and weaknesses, its particular virtues and temptations. One can indeed make some comparative judgments between them in terms of their ideals, if not in terms of their practice. But these judgments are inescapably ambiguous and reflect the norms of one’s own traditions.58

I believe that the Christian tradition has the potential to meet these criteria better than other traditions, but I have to acknowledge that it has seldom lived up to this potential. I can learn from other traditions, coming to appreciate some of their ethical sensitivities, meditation practices, and models of God, which can be part of my life. Even after trying to learn from them, I am still an outsider whose understanding is fragmentary, and I am not in a position to pass judgment on them. If I take a confessional stance, I can only witness to what has happened in my life and in that of the Christian community; my main task is to respond to the deepest insights of my own heritage.59

The differences among religions are too great for us to adopt the Identity of Essence thesis, despite, the appeal of its universalism in a global age. The Approximations of Truth position seems difficult to maintain if beliefs and criteria are strongly paradigm-dependent. It may be defended, however, by reliance on revelation, which has no parallel in science. The dangers of Absolutism can be avoided if revelation is not identified with infallible scriptures, revealed doctrines, or authoritative institutions. If revelation occurs through the lives of persons, the human character of theology and the human failings of the church can be acknowledged.

Pluralistic Dialogue allows us to give preeminence to revelation and salvation in Christ without denying the possibility of revelation or salvation in other traditions. It differs from Approximations of Truth in its greater openness to the possibility of distinctive divine initiative in other traditions. It also goes further in accepting the historical conditioning of our interpretive categories. Yet it differs from Cultural Relativism in insisting that there are criteria of judgment, so we do not have to end in skepticism.

The first three criteria, in particular, do exhibit some similarities with science, even if their application is more ambiguous and paradigm-dependent. If we looked only at the noncognitive functions of religious language, such as personal transformation and liturgical celebration, we might accept a total relativism because no truth claims about reality would be asserted. But if religious language does make implicit and explicit claims about reality -- even tentative and partial claims -- we cannot abandon the use of criteria to evaluate concepts and beliefs. Critical reflection guided by such criteria is primarily motivated by our own search for truth rather than by the desire to prove our superiority over others. But it does imply that there are limits to tolerance. We cannot avoid passing judgment on cannibalism, Satanism, or Nazism or raising questions about what we see as the inadequacies of other religious traditions.

Perhaps Pluralistic Dialogue ends closer to relativism than to absolutism, but it can be distinguished from both. It brings liberation from the quest for certainty, which is one of the motivations of absolutism. We have said that certainty is not possible, even in science, and that all understanding is historically conditioned. Yet we do not need to accept the skepticism to which extreme relativism leads in the interpretation of both science and religion. Such skepticism would in the long run undermine the commitment that is balanced against tentativeness in both the scientific and the religious community. Of all the alternatives, this path offers the greatest prospect for religious cooperation in a global age, as we will see in part 3.

Pluralistic Dialogue between religions is compatible with Dialogue between science and religion concerning boundary questions and methodological parallels (chapter 1). But it is also compatible with a closer Integration between science and religion (through natural theology, a theology of nature, or systematic synthesis). Critical realism encourages such integration, for it holds that some statements in the two disciplines refer to a common world. Instrumentalists maintain that ideas of various kinds have dissimilar functions in life; linguistic analysts hold that there are independent language games having little in common. But critical realists affirm that the theories of science and the beliefs of theology both make claims about reality -- and that at least some points these claims are related to each other. Some of these relationships are explored in part 2.



1. Carl Becker, "What Are Historical Facts?" in The Philosophy of History in Our Time, ed. H. Meyerhoff (New York: Doubleday, 1959), p. 132.

2. William Dray, Laws and Explanation in History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1957), p. 150.

3. R. G. Collingwood, The Idea of History (London: Oxford University Press, 1946), part V.

4. Peter Winch, The Idea of a Social Science (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1958).

5. C. G. Hempel, "The Function of General Laws in History," in Readings in Philosophical Analysis, eds. H. Feigl and W. Sellars (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1949), p. 459.

6. William Dray, Philosophy of History (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1964); Patrick Gardiner, ed., Theories of History (Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1959).

7. Terence Bell, "On Historical Explanation," Philosophy of Social Science 2 (1972): 182 ff.

8. Holmes Rolston, Science and Religion: A Critical Survey (New York: Random House, 1987), chap. 6.

9. Gordon Graham, Historical Explanation Reconsidered (Aberdeen, Scotland: Aberdeen University Press, 1983).

10. Stephen Toulmin, Human Understanding: The Collective Use and Evolution of Concepts (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972), chaps. 2 and 6.

11. Phillip Clayton, Explanation from Physics to Theology (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989).

12. Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative, vol. 1 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984).

13. See James B. Wiggins, ed., Religion as Story (New York: Harper & Row, 1975); Michael Goldberg, Theology and Narrative: A Critical Introduction (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1982); Gary Comstock, "Two Types of Narrative Theology," Journal of the American Academy of Religion 55 (1987): 687-720.

14. David Tracy, The Analogical Imagination: Christian Theology and the Culture of Pluralism (New York: Crossroad Press, 1981).

15. Hans Frei, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974).

16. Sallie McFague TeSelle, Speaking in Parables: A Study in Metaphor and Theology (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975); John Dominic Crossan, In Parables: The Challenge of the Historical Jesus (New York: Harper & Row, 1973).

17. H. Richard Niebuhr, The Meaning of Revelation (New York: Macmillan, 1941).

18. James McClendon, Biography as Theology: How Life Stories Can Remake Today’s Theology (Nashville: Abingdon, 1974).

19. Stanley Hauerwas, A Community of Character (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981).

20. Van Harvey, The Historian and the Believer (New York: Macmillan, 1966).

21. Goldberg, Theology and Narrative, p. 240.

22. Roy MacLeod, "Changing Perspectives in the Social History of Science," in Science, Technology, and Society, eds. Ina Spiegel-Rossing and Derek Price (Beverly Hills: Sage Publications, 1977); Sal Restivo, ‘Some Perspectives in Contemporary Sociology of Science," Science, Technology & Human Values 35 (Spring 1981): 22-30.

23. J. R. Ravetz, Science and Its Social Problems (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971).

24. Barry Barnes, Interests and the Growth of Knowledge (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1977); David Bloor, Knowledge and Social Imagery (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1966); Karin Knorr-Cetina, The Manufacture of Knowledge (Oxford: Pergamon, 1981); Science Observed, eds. Karin Knorr-Cetina and Michael Mulkay (Beverly Hills: Sage, 1983).

25. Mary Hesse, "Cosmology as Myth," in Cosmology and Theology, eds. David Tracy and Nicholas Lash (New York: Seabury, 1983); also her Revolutions and Reconstructions in the Philosophy of Science (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980), chap. 2.

26. Paul Forman, "Weimar Culture, Causality and Quantum Theory, 1918-1927," Historical Studies in Physical Science 3 (1971): 1.

27. Andrew Pickering, Constructing Quarks (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984).

28. Rubem Alves, "On the Eating Habits of Science" and "Biblical Faith and the Poor of the World," in Faith and Science in an Unjust World, ed. Roger Shinn (Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1980).

29. Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1973); José Miguez-Bonino, Doing Theology in a Revolutionary Situation (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975).

30. See Robert McAfee Brown, Theology in a New Key (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1978).

31. For example, James H. Cone, God of the Oppressed (New York: Seabury, 1975).

32. Ruth Bleier, Science and Gender: A Critique of Biology and Its Theories of Women (New York: Pergamon Press, 1984).

33. Helen Longino, "Scientific Objectivity and Feminist Theorizing," Liberal Education 67 (1981): 187-95. See also Ruth Hubbard, "Have Only Men Evolved?" in Biological Woman: The Convenient Myth, eds. R. Hubbard, M. Henifin, and B. Fried (Cambridge, MA: Schenkman, 1982).

34. Evelyn Fox Keller, A Feeling for the Organism (San Francisco: Freeman, 1983) and Reflections on Gender and Science (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984).

35. Sandra Harding, The Science Question in Feminism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986), p. 250.

36. Carolyn Merchant, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution (New York: Harper & Row, 1980).

37. Nancy Chodorow, The Reproduction of Mothering (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978); see also Keller, Reflections on Gender and Science, chaps. 4, 5, and 6.

38. For example, Elizabeth Clark and Herbert Richardson, eds., Women and Religion: A Feminist Sourcebook of Christian Thought (New York: Harper & Row, 1976); Letty Russell, Feminist interpretations of the Bible (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1985).

39. Rosemary Radford Ruether, New Woman/New Earth (New York: Seabury Press, 1975) and Sexism and God-Talk (Boston: Beacon Press, 1983).

40. Mary Daly, Beyond God the Father (Boston: Beacon Press, 1973); Carol Christ and Judith Plaskow, eds., Womanspirit Rising (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1979).

41. Richard Swinburne, "The Evidential Value of Religious Experience," in The Sciences and Theology in the Twentieth Century, ed. Arthur Peacocke (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981), p. 190. See also his The Existence of God (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), chap. 13.

42. William Alston, "Christian Experience and Christian Belief," in Faith and Rationality, eds. A. Plantinga and N. Wolsterhoff (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983).

43. Steven Katz, "Language, Epistemology, and Mysticism," in Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis, ed. S. Katz (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978), p. 46. See also Richard Jones, "Experience and Conceptualization in Mystical Knowledge," Zygon 18 (1983): 139-65.

44. Peter Donovan, Interpreting Religious Experience (London: Sheldon Press, 1979), p. 35.

45. Ibid., p. 72.

46. Ninian Smart, "Interpretation and Mystical Experience," Religious Studies 1 (1965): 75 and 79. See also his "Understanding Religious Experience," in Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis, ed., Katz.

47. Barbour, Myths,, Models, and Paradigms, chap. 7.

48. William Rottschaefer, "Religious Cognition as Interpreted Experience: An Examination of Ian Barbour’s Comparison of Epistemic Structures of Science and Religion," Zygon 20 (1985): 265-82, agrees that there is no uninterpreted religious experience that could yield direct knowledge of God, but he criticizes my view of interpreted religious experience. He argues that there is no religious experience as such; religious beliefs are inferentially acquired and then used in the interpretation of "ordinary nonreligious experience." This might fit some religious literature, but I do not believe that it adequately reflects the distinctive character of the experiences that have been considered most significant in most religious communities.

49. John E. Smith, Experience and God (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969), pp. 52, 84.

50. On religious pluralism, see Owen Thomas, ed., Attitudes Toward Other Religions (New York: University Press of America, 1986); John Hick and Brian Hebblethwaite, eds., Christianity and Other Religions (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980).

51. John Hick, God Has Many Names (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1982), p. 52.

52. Ibid, p. 75.

53. John Hick, Problems of Religious Pluralism (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985), chap.3.

54. John Cobb, Beyond Dialogue (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982), explores ways in which Christianity and Buddhism can learn from and modify each other.

55. Paul F. Knitter, No Other Name? A Critical Survey of Christian Attitudes Toward the World Religions (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1986); John Hick and Paul F. Knitter, eds., The Myth of Christian Uniqueness: Toward a Pluralistic Theology of Religions (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1987).

56. The metaphor of chain and cable appears in Charles Sanders Peirce, Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, eds. Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1931-1935), 5:264.

57. Ninian Smart, Worldviews (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1983), p. 170.

58. See Hick, Problems of Religious Pluralism, chap. 5.

59. On confessionalism and the dangers of trying to prove superiority, see Niebuhr, The Meaning of Revelation, chap. 1.