3: Difficulties with the Case for Pluralism

Is There Only One True Religion or Are There Many?
by Schubert M. Ogden

3: Difficulties with the Case for Pluralism

The burden of the last chapter was to show that the case against exclusivism is exceptionally strong—and that this is true not only because exclusivism is an incredible theological position, being incapable of validation in terms of common human experience and reason, but also because it is deeply inappropriate to Jesus Christ. Implying, as it does, a double standard for obtaining salvation, exclusivism creates a form of the problem of evil that is insoluble. If it were true, the only inference from the fact that Christians alone are saved would be either that God is not good enough to want to save all others or that God is not powerful enough to make their salvation possible. Either way, the understanding of God implied by the assertion that Jesus is the Christ could not be consistently upheld.

If this argument is sound, we have good reason to look to some option other than exclusivism for the answer to our central question. It is by no means


obvious, however, that it is to pluralism that we should look. We have seen, to be sure, that pluralists are wont to claim over against inclusivists that their position is the only consistent alternative to exclusivism. But there are difficulties with their argument for pluralism, not the least of which is why this claim itself should be thought valid (cf. Ogden 1988).

To see why I say this, we need to recall just what it is that Christians and theologians who contend for pluralism understand by it. I argued at the end of Chapter 1 that, contrary to what might be supposed from the recent statements of certain pluralists, the position they hold is not only that there can be many true religions, but that there actually are. Thus the assertion typical of pluralism is that Christianity is not the only true religion, but, in John Hick's words, “one of a plurality of contexts of salvation . . . within which the transformation of human existence from self-centeredness to God- or Reality-centeredness is occurring.” Such an assertion, Hick claims, is the “logical” (or “natural”) conclusion of the trajectory whose path can be traced “from an exclusivist to an inclusivist view of other religions” (Hick and Knitter, 23, 16, 22). But how valid is this claim?

In the earlier discussion of exclusivism and inclusivism as both forms of religious monism, I noted that the reason for their claim that Christianity alone is the true religion is the, for them, very good reason that it alone can be formally true. Because in their views the only religion that can be true in this sense is the religion established by God in the unique saving event ofJesus Christ, they can


confidently assert that the Christian religion alone is true in this sense because there simply cannot be many ways of salvation of which the Christian way is only one. But, then, this is the assertion, common to both monistic views, that has to be countered if there is to be a complete break with monism, whether exclusivistic or inclusivistic. To counter it, however, in no way requires one to assert with pluralism that there actually are many ways of salvation of which Christianity is but one. All that one needs to assert is that there can be these many ways, even if, as a matter of fact, Christianity should turn out to be the only way of salvation there is.

For this reason. Hick's claim is unfounded. Pluralism is not the logical conclusion of a consistent movement away from exclusivism, but is an independent assertion to be evaluated on its merits. Exclusivism and inclusivism could both be invalidated without in any way validating pluralism as the answer to our question. Unfortunately, this is not the only logical difficulty with the typical case for pluralism. Among other fallacious arguments that pluralists sometimes offer is that genuine interreligious dialogue is possible only on the basis of a consistent pluralism. Thus Alan Race, for instance, commends “pluralism in the Christian theology of religions” because it “seeks to draw the faiths ofthe world’s religious past into a mutual recognition of one another's truths and values, in order for truth itself to come into proper focus” (Race, 148). But no such mutual recognition of one another’s truths and values is


logically required in order for truth itself to come into proper focus. All that is necessary to this end is a mutual recognition of one another's truth- and value-claims as exactly that—claims to validity that are equally in need and equally deserving of critical validation in terms of our common human experience and reason. Implied by such recognition, no doubt, is the further recognition of one another as persons, who can make and validate such claims and who are, therefore, entitled to a distinctive kind of moral respect. But such mutual respect for one another as persons in no way depends upon asserting that the claims to truth and value of either person are valid claims. I can be wrong, and so can my partner; and yet both of us can and should be open to one another in genuine dialogue and in a common inquiry into the true and the good.

In short, the case for pluralism can no more be made by arguing for interreligious dialogue than by arguing against religious monism; and to reason in either way on the contrary supposition is to reason fallaciously. Pluralism is not the logical conclusion of a consistent movement toward the other religions, but is an independent assertion that must stand or fall on its own. Interreligious dialogue could very well be validated without in the least validating pluralism as the answer to our question (cf. Lochhead). Nor can validating it ever be easy by the very logic of such an answer. Whether any religion at all is true must, in the nature of the case, be more or less difficult to determine. We noted one ofthe principal reasons for this already in the first chapter, when we considered the procedures necessary to


determine religious truth. Because these procedures require verifying the necessary implications of a religion for both belief and action, they unavoidably involve all the well-known difficulties of both metaphysical and ethical verification. For this reason alone, one might well hesitate to pronounce any religion true, much less a plurality of them.

But not only are there such philosophical difficulties; there are historical and hermeneutical difficulties as well. Every religion is a historical emergent, and it is available concretely, asjust this or that specific religion, only in and through the religious praxis of some particular social and cultural group. Furthermore, every religious tradition is to some extent self-defining in that it specifies certain of its elements as normative for some or all of the others. But these normative elements, no less than all the rest, are thoroughly historical and are accessible as such only empirically, through historical experience and inquiry. Thus what counts as formally normative for a particular religion both in principle and in fact must be determined historically by actually encountering its particular tradition. And such determination may very well be complicated by the fact that there is no consensus in the religion about what is normative for its tradition. Indeed, its tradition so-called may turn out to be little more than a plurality of religious traditions, each specifying what is normative for it in a somewhat different way. Yet even after one determines what is to count as normative for a religion, there remain the by no means minor difficulties of rightly interpreting its norms so that they can perform their proper


function. No norm can function as such except by being somehow understood; and yet how it is to be rightly understood is likely to be even more controversial than whether it or something else is really normative. This would be true, in fact, even ifthere were agreement, as there is not, that religious claims are properly analyzed as existential claims and as therefore having an existential kind of meaning and truth. Exactly what it means to say this, and thus how religious claims are and are not related to other logically distinct kinds of claims, continue to be matters of controversy among philosophers and students ofreligion as well as theologians. In any event, whether what this or that specific religion offers as its answer to the existential question is true cannot be determined merely philosophically. As also in part a properly historical and hermeneutical question, it can be answered only by actually encountering the specific religion and rightly interpreting what it asserts or implies about the meaning of ultimate reality for us.

Naturally, to be a religious believer is one and the same with claiming either explicitly or implicitly that one's own religion is true. But, aside from the fact that this is simply one more claim to religious truth, whose validity also has to be determined along with that of every other, all that its being validated would allow one to affirm a priori about the truth of any other specific religion is that it either can or cannot be true. Thus, even assuming that, from a Christian standpoint, not only exclusivism but inclusivism also could be shown to be invalid, the most that a Christian could possibly know, prior


to actually encountering the many religions and rightly interpreting them, is not that they in fact are true, but only that they at least can be true.

Of course, it is not particularly difficult to undertake the empirical study ofreligion, or ofspecific religions, and to do this, as we say, comparatively. In this way, one can learn, for example, that human beings quite generally, after a certain amount of social and cultural development, seem to feel the need for some sort of radical transformation of their own individual existence in relation to ultimate reality. Thus not only Christianity but all of the other axial religions as well are evidently addressed to this need and present themselves asthe means ofjustsuch ultimate transformation. But learning only this about the axial religions entitles one to make no more than a purely formal statement about them—to the effect that they all exhibit the same essential structure both in focusing the existential problem in the individual person and in seeking to solve it by radically transforming her or his self-understanding. Such a statement in no way excludes, but obviously allows for, a wide range of material differences, not excluding substantial contrariety and contradiction, between one religion and another in their respective understandings of human existence. The great difficulty for pluralists, however, is to get beyond this purely formal statement in a reasoned way. If there are many true religions, the similarities between them, notwithstanding all their differences, must be material as well as formal, matters of content as well as of structure. In other words, with whatever differences in concepts


and symbols, they must express substantially the same self-understanding, the same way of understanding ourselves in relation to others and the whole. And this means, for reasons explained in the first chapter, that they must also have substantially the same necessary implications, both metaphysical and ethical. But if my own experience of interreligious dialogue is any indication, it is likely to remain exceedingly difficult, even after the most extensive study and first-hand experience of another person’s religious claims, to knowjust where, or even whether, one's own religion expresses the same religious truth.

This has come home to me with particular force during the course of my involvement in Buddhist- Christian dialogue. For over a decade now, I have been engaged, in one way or another, in extended discussion with Buddhists, especially with certain members of the Kyoto School of Japanese Zen Buddhism. As this discussion has deepened, I have become increasingly convinced that, for all of the obvious differences between the formulations of our respective positions, there are striking similarities between the understanding of human existence for which my Zen Buddhist partners typically argue and what I as a Christian theologian understand to be our authentic self-understanding as human beings. I realize, of course, that my understanding of authentic existence is not the only Christian understanding of faith in God, any more than their understanding of authenticity is the only Buddhist understanding of the realization of emptiness. But fully recognizing that the discussion between us is


only part ofthe larger Buddhist-Christian dialogue, I am still struck by the convergence between their self-understanding as Buddhists and my own as a Christian. In fact, when I apply my existentialist equivalent of a pragmatist criterion of meaning— according to which different formulations that make no difference in how one must understand oneself to appropriate them are insofar only verbally different—I strongly incline to think thatsuch real differences as there may be between our two self-understandings can only be rather subtle and hard to pin down.

Thus I am quite unable to share the view often expressed by other Christians and theologians that, despite their obvious formal similarity as axial religions, or religions of ultimate transformation. Buddhism and Christianity are deeply opposed understandings of human existence. Contrary to the claim that, for Buddhism, the human problem is focused on our sheer existence as fragmentary beings, I find that Buddhist talk ofthe deepest level of human suffering identifies it as an ignorance of our essential condition which is not merely a matter of fate, but for which we are each in some way responsible. To this extent, there is a clear parallel, if not a convergence, between the Buddhist understanding of suffering as the consequence of ignorance and the Christian understanding of death as the wages of sin. This is clear, at any rate, if we avoid not only a naturalistic misunderstanding of what Buddhists mean by ignorance but also a moralistic misunderstanding of what Christians mean by sin. Provided sin is understood, as it


should be, not as moral transgression, but as the deeper refusal of one's existence as a creature of God, it is not merely one among the many options of our freedom, but our “natural" condition, the basic state of existence, or way of understanding ourselves, in which we ordinarily exist. Thus, in the Christian understanding, existence in sin and death is, in its way, a matter of destiny as well as of freedom, even as, in the Buddhist view, existence in ignorance and suffering is, in its way, a matter of freedom as well as of destiny.

Likewise, I do not find that the Buddhist understanding of authentic existence is the kind of ahistorical and world-denying understanding that it is commonly taken to be. On the contrary, I see my Buddhist colleagues being at least as concerned as Christians are with the whole range of human needs, of body and mind as well as of soul and spirit, and hence as turned toward the world and history, not away from them. Nor am I able to explain this simply by their being modern women and men who have been shaped as much as modern Christians have by historical consciousness and by the resultant sense of responsibility to transform the entire setting of human life, social and cultural as well as natural. As much as they have indeed been influenced by modern secularity, they have the confidence, which I take to be entirely justified, that the deepest roots of their commitment to transforming social and cultural structures as well as individual persons lie in their own religious tradition as Buddhists. Just as for Christians any living faith cannot fail to be active in love, so for Buddhists the wisdom that overcomes


our ignorance must inevitably express itself in compassion. Given a modern sense of historical responsibility, then, compassion, like love, must concern itself not only with meeting human needs within societies and cultures, but also with transforming their basic structures so as to overcome injustice and oppression (see Habito; Ray).

Consequently, when my Buddhist colleagues talk of what it means to exist authentically, they seem to point to something like the same genuinely dialectical, or “paradoxical,” way of existing to which I seek to point as a Christian. On the one hand, it is an existence in radical freedom from oneself and the world, in which one is inwardly released from clinging to them in ignorance and suffering or in sin and death; on the other hand, it is an existence in radical freedom for oneself and the world, in which one is inwardly released to affirm and to further them in compassion or in love (see Park). True as all this is, however, I still have not been able to conclude that Buddhism and Christianity are really only different formulations of the same understanding of existence. Subtle as their real differences may be, there nonetheless seem to me to be such; and up to now, at least, I have not found any way of reducing them. This becomes particularly clear whenever I consider not only Buddhist and Christian self-understandings as such, but also their metaphysical implications. Of course, one has to be careful at this point to distinguish clearly between the metaphysical implications of a given self-understanding and the metaphysical consequences of some particular


formulation of it. Just as a self-understanding is one thing, its explicit formulation in particular concepts and symbols, something else, so the necessary implications of a self-understanding ought never to be confused with the consequences that follow, given certain concepts and symbols in which it happens to be formulated. This means, among other things, that one must always allow for the possibility that what are widely supposed to be the metaphysical implications of a self-understanding are not really that at all, but are simply the metaphysical consequences of a particular way of formulating it, or ofthe assumptions made in doing so. Thus, for example, it is at least arguable that the traditional Christian doctrine of the impassibility of God follows, not from a Christian self-understanding as such, but rather from certain metaphysical assumptions about who God has to be that were made more or less uncritically by the church fathers who classically formulated it. But even if one allows that something like this may also be the case in Buddhism, the fact remains that what are widely supposed to be the metaphysical implications of Buddhist self-understanding are really and significantly different from what I, for one, take to be necessarily implied by a Christian understanding of existence.

This is clear enough from the differences indicated by Christian theism, on the one hand, and Buddhist nontheism, on the other. Whereas for Christians, the self-understanding of faith necessarily implies the reality of God as the sole primal source and the sole final end of all things, for


Buddhists, the self-understanding ofwisdom is held to imply, rather, the dependent coorigination of all things and their essential emptiness. So, according to Christianity, the world and history develop irreversibly from the past into the future, and the relations between things are external as well as internal, grounding real differences between them. According to Buddhism, on the contrary, nothing whatever is or can be independent and self-existing, because everything is of necessity interdependent with, and interpenetrated by, everything else. But if this is the ultimate metaphysical truth about things, then any development from the past into the future is reversible, and either there are no relations between things at all or else all relations between them are internal only, and any differences between things sufficient to ground differential thought and action with respect to them are ultimately delusive.

With this, however, the rationale for responsible thought and action in and for the world clearly seems to be undercut. For if it need not imply that we are to be concerned for nothing at all, it does imply something hardly less stultifying of responsible thought and action—namely, that we are to be equally concerned for everything. Thus there at least appears to be a basic contradiction between the kind of metaphysical monism that Buddhist selfunderstanding is widely supposed to imply and this self-understanding as such, especially the development of it by contemporary Buddhists who are clearly as concerned as modern Christians are with responsibly making history and transforming the world (cf. Ogden 1990).


whether or not such a contradiction is real, or how it is to be resolved, is not my present concern. I have gone into it only to explain why, on the basis of my own continuing encounter with Buddhism, I am still not able to say that its understanding of existence is materially the same as Christianity’s. For all of theirstriking similarities, they still seem to me to be really different, at least as they have been formulated up to now. Therefore, I have more and more found myself agreeing with the observation of Clifford Geertz that "what all sacred symbols assert is that the good for man is to live realistically; where they differ is in the vision of reality they construct” (Geertz, 130). Clearly, a serious difficulty in making any case for pluralism is coming to terms with this difference.

There are still other difficulties, however, pertaining to the evidence and argument that at least some pluralists offer to support their claim that there are many true religions or ways of salvation. Thus John Hick, notably, assumes that the evidence appropriate to validating the claim is provided by “the fruits of religious faith in human life,” and so by the extent of individual and social transformation effected by the different specific religions (Hick and Knitter, 23-24). As a matter of fact. Hick appears to feel confirmed in his pluralistic position primarily on the negative ground that none of the axial religions, taken as a whole, proves to be superiorto the others when they are all assessed in terms of their effectiveness as contexts ofsalvation or liberation, both individual and social (Hick 1989, 297- 380). But this way of arguing for the equality, or


“rough parity,” of the axial religions, and hence for pluralism, will not stand up under close scrutiny.

This is clear, first of all, from the fact that there is no valid inference from the so-called fruits of religious faith in human life to the reality or presence of such faith itself. It is indeed the case, for reasons explained in the first chapter, that any religious faith as an understanding of human existence has necessary implications for ethical action as well as for metaphysical belief. And its ethical implications may very well extend to transforming the structures of society and culture as well as to the transformation of individual moral behavior. But to do what faith would do, or to act as faith would act, is not necessarily to exist in faith itself, any more than believing what faith would believe is possible only for a person of faith. And this is true even if we prescind altogether from the case of insincere or hypocritical action. Even if one does what faith would do, or acts as it would act, in all sincerity, one may or may not understand oneself in faith and act on the basis of it instead of something else. Thus, in the well-known passage from his correspondence with the Corinthians, Paul can say of even the apparently most radical expressions of love that one can give away all that one has and even sacrifice one’s life, and yet "have not love” (1 Cor 13:3). I realize, naturally, that what Paul and other Christians can say about the radical transformation of faith working through love applies, in the first instance, to Christian faith, rather than to religious faith more generally. But I have the distinct impression that much the same thing could be said about


the radical transformation to which any of the other axial religions points in its own understanding of human existence. Although any such trans¬ formation must indeed bear fruits both in individual moral behavior and in the structures of society and culture, it itself takes place solely in our innermost self-understanding, and, therefore, can never be either simply identified with its fruits or validly inferred from them, however validly they can be inferred from it.

There is another closely related objection to this whole way of reasoning. Granted that individual and social changes can indeed be observed to occur in the context of a specific religion, how does one rule out the possibility that changes thus associated with the religion have nonetheless occurred independently of it or been effected less because of it than in spite ofit? One of the striking things to me about the behavior of human beings in extreme situations is that their specific religious or philosophical affiliations seem to make relatively little difference. During the Nazi time in Germany, for instance, the resistance against Hitler included persons of the most diverse religious and philosophical persuasions, even as the same was true of those who passively supported his regime or actively collaborated with it. I submit that the case is not likely to be different in other more or less similar situations familiar to all of us. But, then, what force can there be in arguing for the truth of a specific religion from changes occurring in either individuals or societies in its particular context?


The still deeper difficulty, however, is with the underlying assumption of any such argument— namely, that the truth of a specific religion could be logically determined from its effectiveness as a context of salvation or liberation. To make this assumption is to fall into a serious logical confusion—as serious, indeed, as if we were to suppose that the truth of ordinary judgments of fact could be determined from their effectiveness in getting themselves sincerely believed. To believe ever so sincerely that a factual judgment is true is to do nothing whatever from which its truth could be determined. If it is true, it is not because it is believed, but because it is worthy of belief, even if no one ever believed it; and whether this can or cannot be said depends entirely upon whether or not it can be validated by the procedures appropriate to verifying judgments of fact. In the same way, one may most sincerely understand oneself as a specific religion calls one to do without providing even the least reason for thinking that the religion is true. If it is true, it is not because one so understands oneself, but because one ought so to understand oneself, even if one were to fail to do so; and whether this is or is not the case entirely depends upon whether or not one's self-understanding can be validated by the procedures appropriate to determining religious truth. For this reason, the extent to which a specific religion is effective in securing even the most committed adherents is logically irrelevant to validating its claim to be formally true.

Yet even if pluralists were to take account of this and were to support their claim only by


evidence and argument appropriate to doing so, they would still face a fundamental difficulty in making their case. This is so, at any rate, on the assumption that pluralism is indeed to be distinguished from complete relativism, by which I mean the position according to which all religions are formally true. According to Alan Race, “the pertinent question mark which hovers over all theories of pluralism is how far they succeed in overcoming the sense of ‘debilitating relativism’ which is their apparent danger.” Thus Race explicitly rejects “the view that all faiths are equally true, or of equal value, or are ultimately saying the same thing,” and insists that pluralists, in their way, in the way of genuine interreligious dialogue, must participate “in the search to distinguish the more from the less profound, the more from the less ‘true’ religious belief” (Race, 90, 143f.). In his clear intention to avoid complete relativism. Race seems to me to be representative of most of his fellow pluralists, even if, as I noted in an earlier chapter, a few of them have claimed, perhaps carelessly, that all religions are equally true or adequate. In any event, what I take pluralism to mean is significantly different from relativism in allowing that there at least can be specific religions, or ways of salvation, that are false rather than true.

But if pluralism does indeed allow this, there is no way of making a reasoned case for its claim that there are many true religions except by employing, either tacitly or openly, some norm of religious truth. If at least some specific religion can be false, no specific religion can be judged to be true without


reason, which is to say, without appropriate evidence and argument. Necessarily entailed by such argument is some norm for judging true religion, whether it be the formal norm already given simply by some specific religion or theology or, alternatively, a norm derived from philosophy, in the sense of critical reflection on all religions as well as on all secular forms of culture. This means that pluralists must either employ such a norm and give a convincing account of their reasons for doing so or else content themselves with making no more than the purely formal statement about religions that, as we saw earlier, falls far short of their pluralistic claim.

To recognize this is to understand why pluralists who want to avoid relativism cannot finally escape what they often seem to regard as a difficulty peculiar to inclusivism—the difficulty, namely, of taking some one specific religion to be formally true, and hence the norm for determining all other religious truth. To be sure, they do have the alternative of looking to philosophy to provide their norm, rather than to some specific religion or theology. But here, too, there are difficulties. For one thing, any sound philosophical analysis itself confirms that it belongs to the very nature of a religion to make or imply the claim to be formally true. It thus claims to be the formal norm not only for all other true religion, but also for any other existential truth whatever, including that of philosophy. Even if one allows, then, that a philosophy, also, makes or implies the claim to tell the truth about human existence, and hence to be formally normative for determining the truth of specific religions, one cannot simply ignore their


claim to be formally true. On the contrary, one must allow that the truth in any philosophy not only has to confirm that in any religion, but also has to be confirmed by it. So, pending the inquiry necessary to validate both of their claims to truth, one cannot look simply to some philosophy to provide one's norm, but must assume, rather, that any specific religion is as much the source of normative judgment as its object, while any particular philosophy is as much the object of such judgment as its source (see also Ogden 1986, 84-93).

Quite aside from this difficulty, however, there is no essential difference at the crucial point between employing a norm derived from philosophical reflection and employing the formal norm of some specific religion or theology. In the first case as much as in the second, one takes some explicit understanding of human existence to be formally true, and hence the norm for determining all other religious truth. In either case, the essential difficulty remains, and there is no escaping it as long as one wishes to claim in a reasoned way that any religion is true. That this is so is made abundantly clear by the development over the years of the case for pluralism. Early on in this development, pluralists like John Hick contended for their pluralistic position by arguing for a “theocentric,” as over against an “ecclesiocentric,” or a “christocentric,” understanding of Christianity and the other religions. Indeed, the “Copernican revolution" in theology for which Hick originally called involved “a shift from the dogma that Christianity is at the centre to the


realisation that it is God who is at the centre, and that all the religions of mankind, including our own, serve and revolve around him” (Hick 1973, 131). But as many critics have been quick to point out, a God-centered norm for determining the truth of specific religions is still “Ptolemaic,” or is only slightly less so than a Christ- or church-centered norm. To argue that many religions are true because or insofar as they serve and revolve around God is still to make some one religion or philosophy normative for all religious truth. This is so, at any rate, as long as the term “God” is understood in anything like its ordinary Christian or theistic signification and is not taken in a purely formal sense as synonymous with “ultimate reality.” Provided “God” represents one way among others of thinking and speaking about ultimate reality, which is materially different from, even if formally similar to, other such ways, a “theocentric” understanding of religions must be as problematic in principle as a christocentric one. Thus the theocentric pluralist is still faced with the same essential dilemma: either to avoid employing a norm of judgment, and thus never to get beyond the purely formal statement that all religions claim to be true; or else to make a reasoned judgment about their truth, but only by employing, openly or tacitly, some one of them, or some philosophy, as the norm required to make it.

Recognizing this, as well as other difficulties in theocentrism, pluralists have more recently argued their case in other terms. Hick himself now speaks, not of “God-centeredness,” but of “Reality-


centeredness,” thereby acknowledging that “God” is but one of two main ways in which the different axial religions think and speak about "the Ultimate” or “the Real” (see Hick 1989; Hick and Knitter, 16-36). But important as this development certainly is in contributing toward a more adequate, because less tendentious, conceptuality in which to think and speak about religions in a purely formal way, it does not overcome the essential difficulty in making the case for pluralism. Either the concept of “Reality-centeredness” is purely formal and heuristic, in which case it provides no norm for judging the truth of religions, and thus leaves pluralism a sheer unsupported assertion; or else it serves to support pluralism by providing such a norm, but only because it has the material and determinate sense given it by some one specific religion or philosophy.

The same is true of the other recent development in which Paul Knitter especially has taken the lead. Influenced, as he is, by the theologies of liberation, he has increasingly argued for “a liberation theology of religions." Whereas in his 1985 book No Other Name? he described the evolution in Christian attitudes toward other faiths as moving from ecclesiocentrism to christocentrism and then to theocentrism, he has since called for them to move on to “what in Christian symbols might be called ‘kingdom-centrism,’ or more universally, 'soteriocentrism.’” “For Christians,” he argues, “that which constitutes the basis and the goal for interreligious dialogue, that which makes mutual understanding and cooperation between the religions possible (the


‘condition of the possibility’), that which unites the religions in common discourse and praxis, is not how they are related to the church, ... or how they are related to Christ, . . . nor even how they respond to and conceive of God, but rather, to what extent they are promoting Soteria (in Christian images, the basileia)—to what extent they are engaged in promoting human welfare and bringing about liberation with and for the poor and nonpersons” (Hick and Knitter, 187).

Here, again, it seems to me that many of the intentions of pluralists are sound and that they have a contribution to make to our common theological task. In fact, I am particularly appreciative of Knitter’s efforts because, in a rather different way from Hick’s, they can help to develop a more adequate conceptuality in which to think and speak about religion and religions in a purely formal sense. The problem with the kind of existentialist conceptuality that I have developed and employed in these chapters is that it may be thought to isolate all that is properly religious from the specifically political aspect of praxis and culture with which Knitter and other liberation theologians are rightly concerned. By interpreting religion as explicit self-understanding at the level of primary culture, it allows well enough for the metaphysical and ethical implications of religion, but without making clear that its ethical implications always have a specifically political aspect. One value of Knitter’s expressly, although not exclusively, political understanding of “soteria ” is that it can help to clarify this, so that one can say, as I have stressed


elsewhere, that the existentialist interpretation of religion must always be also its political interpretation (see Ogden 1982, 89-96, 148-68; 1986, 143-50).

But the point of Knitter's soteriocentrism is clearly more than any such purely formal point. Anomalous as it may seem for a pluralist to do so, he undoubtedly formulates the norm by which he proposes to judge the truth of all specific religions. If pluralism in his view is valid, it is because there is not only one religion that satisfies this norm, but many—many religions that are more or less equally engaged in promoting human welfare and liberating the poor and oppressed. As a matter of fact. Knitter goes so far as to make this norm "the basis and goal for interreligious dialogue” and the “condition of the possibility” of "mutual understanding and cooperation between the religions.” But this only shows the more clearly that in this respect, at least, the difference between his soteriocentric pluralism and the inclusivism that he rejects is not a difference in principle but only a difference in fact. Whereas in- clusivists appeal to the salvation constituted by the event of Jesus Christ, Knitter appeals to the salva¬ tion to be realized by following the historical Jesus in his service of God’s kingdom, and thus in promoting liberation and transforming the world (Knitter 1988, 33-48). In both cases, however, the norms appealed to are provided by some one specific religion or philosophy, which is thereby made normative for all the others. There is, to be sure, this significant difference between Knitter's Christian pluralism and Christian inclusivism: whereas for inclusivism there not


only is but can be only one religion that is formally true, for pluralism there not only can be but are many religions that are true in this sense. Thus Knitter is express in saying that it is “for Christians” that the norm of religious truth is as he formulates it, leaving open the possibility, which inclusivism precludes, that persons of other faiths express substantially the same truth even while validly formulating different formal norms forjudging it. But important as this difference certainly is, it in no way alters the fact that Knitter employs a norm of judgment as surely as inclusivists do and that his norm, like theirs, is derived from some one religion or philosophy, as distinct from any of the others that may express substantially the same religious truth.

The moral ofthis whole development seems obvious. Claims of pluralists to the contrary notwithstanding, pluralism in no way offers an alternative to employing some norm of religious truth, and thus to making some one religion or philosophy normative for judging all the rest. Provided that pluralism is distinct from complete relativism, there is simply no other way to make good its claim that more than one specific religion is formally true. The relevant question, then, is not whether a norm is to be employed, but only how: openly and critically, with the clear recognition that even one's norm may be problematic and need to be validated; or, rather, tacitly and uncritically, without allowing for the possibility that validating one's norm itself may also be required. And here, ironically enough, a pluralist like Knitter can speak of his norm as itself the “basis and goal for interreligious dialogue,"


while an inclusivist such as Gavin D'Costa can allow that the "possibility and risk” of abandoning his Christian beliefs and even being converted "cannot be discounted if dialogue is genuinely open and trusting” (D’Costa, 121).

At any rate, it should now be clear that there are a number of difficulties with the case for pluralism and that they are sufficiently serious to make it doubtful whether it can be a valid answer to our question. Like exclusivism, it is logically an extreme position. This is evident from the fact that it counters exclusivism’s claim that there cannot be more

than one religion that is formally true, not with the contradictory claim that there can be, but with the contrary claim that there is, that there are many religions that are true in this sense of the word. The difficulty with extreme contraries on any issue, however, is that, while both cannot be true, both can be false. Therefore, it is entirely possible that pluralism's claim that there are many true religions is as false as the claim of exclusivism that there cannot be more than one, which, as we have seen, is the real meaning of its contrary answer to our question.

If the argument of this chapter is sound, one may well ask whether this is not, in fact, the case. But, then, one must look beyond pluralism as well as exclusivism for the answer to our question, as I propose to do in the concluding chapter.