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Toward an apophatic pluralism: beyond confessionalism, epicyclism, and inclusivism in theology of religions.


Theology of religions has reached an impasse. The leading positions have hardened and spin inwardly in self-justificatory spirals--or perhaps epicycles--of increasingly self-consistent but dialogically barren arguments. S. Mark Heim, a leading antipluralist theologian of religions, began his book on the Trinity and religious pluralism by equating the pluralist stance of liberal Christian theologies with the exclusivist stance of conservative theologies. (1) This clever move would, if true, render pluralism both false and a parody of itself. This rhetorically effective neutering of pluralism is connected with the allied claim offered by theologians of religions including Gavin D'Costa (2) and Aimee Upjohn Light (3) that theologies and philosophies of religious pluralism are covertly exclusivistic and triumphalistic because they promote as the one truth of all religions the claim that an essentialistic, universal doctrine is the essence of all religions. (4) Thus, in moves that antipluralist theologians of religion have promoted for two decades, pluralism is rejected as self-contradictory and religiously imperialistic. Pluralism should, on this view, be dismissed as an instance of the exclusivistic error that it was designed to counter.

Enabled by dubious arguments such as these, antipluralism has become in the last two decades the leading edge of a movement leading theology of religions back into confessionalism and inclusivism, (5) which is counter to the default pluralism of progressive theology, (6) but which is congenial to the move of the broader mainstream of religious life in the United States to the right over the last thirty years. In a recent article in this journal, Aimee Upjohn Light defended antipluralism by characterizing Hickian pluralism as "[a] meta-position claiming to represent the world religions [that] actually contradicts them all." (7) In this essay, I want to argue, however, that this antipluralist caricature of John Hick's pluralistic hypothesis fails as a defense of antipluralist theologies of religions because it misreads the pluralistic hypothesis as a theological rather than as a philosophical claim. As a philosophical claim about the limits of theological and religious language, the pluralistic hypothesis can be distinguished from pluralistic theological claims that, for example, hold that all religions point to the Absolute in historically distinctive ways. This latter view is a speculative, cataphatic claim about the nature of reality that is similar in form (but not in content) to specific theological doctrines such as the Incarnation or the Trimurti, while the former view is an apophatic, regulative, and nonsubstantive philosophical claim. In this essay, I will argue that the first claim is not only essential but necessary for any kind of interreligious activity, while claims of the second kind can extend their reign only as far as the number of people who are persuaded by such beliefs. If this point is granted, then a door beyond inclusivism, with its reliance on ultimately insupportable epicycles, opens before us.


Not long after the nascent theology of religions took the momentous step in the late 1980's of crossing the "theological Rubicon" (8) of setting aside the "myth" of Christian absoluteness (9) and began developing the philosophical and theological sensitivity needed to move decisively beyond the sad and morally disturbing legacy of Christian particularism, both exclusivistic and inclusivistic (as evidenced in a recent essay on the Goan Inquisition by Klaus Klostermaier), (10) the discipline quickly stalled in the impasse of inclusivist epicyclical theorizing about the salvific value of religions other than Christianity. In the decades since the momentous event when Christian theology of religions began to divest Christianity of what Wilfred Cantwell Smith characterized as the "idolatry" of Christian finality, (11) particularist (12) theologians of religions have blocked the inevitable movement of Christianity and Christian theologies toward embracing as a settled truth the nonabsoluteness of Christianity and of all other religions. Rather than moving forward kenotically, prophetically, and mystically as witnesses to nonabsolutism, leading theologians of religions doubled back into a renewed inclusivism, thus incurring the risk of developing ever more labored and often offensive epicycles (13) for inclusivism that are increasingly implausible outside the inclusivist's hermeneutical circle. Because inclusivisms inevitably fail in their attempts to persuade the unpersuaded, they can serve only as apologetic devices for the already convinced.

A clear example is offered by D'Costa, who innovatively--and unpersuasively and irrelevantly to people outside his theological circle--has declined to resolve the problem of deceased "righteous" "non-Christians" by following Joseph DiNoia in opening up purgatory to non-Christians who die in a state of grace (itself an epicycle implausible to those outside this particular theological stance). Instead, D'Costa has rehabilitated the ancient Christian teaching of the limbo of the just (which is to be distinguished from the better-known limbo for deceased unbaptized infants), where righteous non-Christians may be admitted to a kind of conceptual (not an actual "celestial waiting room") middle zone after death in order to have a chance to hear the gospel. (14) D'Costa thus provides a solution that "keeps purgatory Christian" (15) while insuring that "righteous" "non-Christians" (16) will have a chance to respond to the gospel in limbo and then--and only then--as new Christians be allowed to enter the purificatory fire of purgatory so as to continue "their pilgrimage into the community of the saints and the blessed." (17) It is even possible, though "difficult ... to imagine," (18) according to D'Costa, that non-Christians possessed of "startling righteousness" will go to heaven immediately without having to undergo purging in the fire of purgatory. (19) Ironically, D'Costa's adaptation of old and generally discredited or dubious theological doctrines serves the triple purpose of (1) exemplifying the epicyclical inventiveness of inclusivism; (2) confirming the pluralist insight that because no religious model of the world can be final, so-called eternal truths are always under construction; and (3) demonstrating that religious inclusivisms (what to speak of exclusivisms) are inevitably negated by the incapacity of any set of religious symbols and practices to secure the assent of the unpersuaded.

The lessons taught by the overreach and inevitable failure of any kind of religious inclusivism can be summarized in an image: An inclusivistic theologian of religion returns after a millennium to survey the religious scene only to find that the old inclusivisms, now forgotten as relics of an outmoded religious worldview, have been replaced by new epicycles--or by new religions altogether. Confronted with the demise of a once indubitable religious worldview, even the most ardent inclusivist will have to come to terms with irresistible change that ensures that over time every religious outlook will morph into or be replaced by its successor. No particularistic stance can survive the inevitability of change in humanity's religious constructions. A pluralistic theology of religions that takes the inevitability of change as a foundational principle can survive the often cataclysmic changes that religions undergo because, at its simplest, it is the application of the principle that change is inevitable to the religious worlds that human beings create.


Before going on to specify the working principles of a doctrinally modest pluralism, we must eliminate the facile misunderstanding of pluralism as a covert form of exclusivism. This charge is a caricature of pluralism based on a tendentious reading of Hick's pluralistic hypothesis, which can easily be turned against antipluralism: Since antipluralists claim that pluralism replaces the particularity of religious teachings with an essentialist doctrine toward which all religions supposedly point, antipluralists claim to know better than pluralists themselves what pluralists believe (a situation that, of course, no pluralist would accept). Thus, antipluralism is shown to be a form of exclusivism that claims to represent all forms of pluralism while actually contradicting all of them.

Any attempt to discredit antipluralism in this way is as sterile a move as the logically identical move of undercutting pluralism as a form of exclusivism. A priori reasoning of this sort is a kind of intellectual activity at which apologists excel, whether in the epicycles of academic antipluralist apologetics or in the exclusivistic antipluralism of popular apologetics. Showing the flaw in this line of reasoning eliminates inclusivism's only effective defense against pluralism and reopens the way to pluralism.

In line with widespread traditional methods of thinking about religious teachings, the pluralism that I want to articulate in this essay makes two claims. One is a nonsubstantive, apophatic claim, and the other is a substantive cataphatic claim. Apophatically, pluralism points out that no verbal formulas or human practices can be final or normative, given that they are humanly constructed products of historical processes and are, therefore, finite and subject to revision. As a kind of regulative principle, the stance of religious pluralism is grounded on the observation that contextually shaped views about ultimate matters cannot be final because they are revisable and replaceable (which is the experience of the convert, the apostate, and the heretic). What this means in practical terms is that, since dissent from any prevailing teaching, practice, or institution is inevitable and natural, adherents of any body of religious teaching should hold themselves open to correction or enrichment from others who hold different contextually shaped views of these matters. Cataphatically, the stance of religious pluralism is grounded upon the reasonable and philosophically noncontroversial attempt to discover common intentions in human religious movements, which, despite constructivist, antiessentialist, postmodern, and orthodox doubts, can be filled out through comparative study and contemplative practice. Against claims directed at this stance and also at the cataphatic dimension of Hick's pluralistic hypothesis (that is, "the Real") and its variants that they generate doctrines no orthodox believer recognizes as his or her own, the best response is that the pluralistic hypothesis is not a religious doctrine but a philosophical hypothesis involving intellectual activity identical to that involved in the discoveries of comparative linguistics. Hick has often clarified this point, as in this recent statement: "It [the pluralistic hypothesis] is a hypothesis in the philosophy of religion. It is not a Christian theology of religions. The philosopher of religion (whatever his or her personal faith may be) stands back from the historical religions and seeks, among other things, to understand the relation between them." (20)

As a philosophical claim, then, some version of pluralism as a grounding principle of theology of religions is necessary. This claim, however, is not just another theological claim in competition with other theological claims. Insisting on the necessity of a pluralistic stance in theology of religions is not the same as, for example, proclaiming universalism to proponents of a limited atonement. The philosophical claim that pluralism is a necessary principle of theology of religions is more like a grammatical rule. To state the grammatical rule that substantives in the accusative case can be objects but generally not subjects of sentences is not the same as forming a sentence with an accusative noun. Similarly, to make a general claim about the nature of religious language is not the same as articulating a theological doctrine. To say that no doctrine is final, given the limits of human cognition and language, is not the same as claiming that all religions are true or that all religions point to the Absolute. The former statement is a regulative claim and is thus a second-order observation about the strengths and weaknesses of first-order substantive claims about the nature of reality, while the latter statements are speculative claims. At its most modest, a theory of religious pluralism involves the recognition of the limits of language and culture. While this approach can threaten absolutistic religious views, it is consistent with the nonabsolutistic practice of any religious tradition.

Given the sensitivity of religious faith, which is often inextricably rooted in the particular language, customs, and practices of specific communities, it is understandable that making a clean break with inclusivism and the renunciation of ever less plausible epicycles will be difficult for many inclusivists. This difficulty can be lessened, however, by pointing out that the pluralist nonsubstantive, apophatic claim that no verbal formulas or human practices, as products of history, can be final or normative does not involve making substantive, speculative claims about the nature of reality. An apophatic pluralism points to the limits of theologies without proposing a doctrinal alternative. Because revelations and speculative claims invariably clash, we may be allowed to forgo the substantive, cataphatic attempt to discover common intentions in human religions, philosophies, and sciences. While our commitments and responsibilities may make the adoption of a positive, substantive pluralism impossible or costly, the acceptance of an apophatic pluralism can become the basis for an epistemologically chaste but still faithful proclamation of the religious truths of the various sects and communities that compete for the allegiance of religious people.


While it is not inconsistent with the regulative principle of apophatic pluralism to hold that it is logically possible that one of humanity's many religious movements is the one normative religion for all human beings in all times and places, people who are aware of more than one religious tradition that makes absolute claims will inevitably acknowledge that no one can demonstrate such claims to the satisfaction of the unpersuaded without detours into fundamentalism and religious absolutism. The cure for these religious illnesses is to recognize that religious absolutism is always a kind of hope or demand that is self-evident to the persuaded but implausible to the unpersuaded. This situation, when multiplied beyond one absolutist religious movement, results in a stalemate where apologists for competing absolutes meet in conflict and contradiction. Here is where particularisms and other forms of religious absolutism are forced to take their stand on inadequate or indefensible measures including custom, nostalgia, narrowly interpreted religious experience, fideism, authority, fundamentalism, or, in the worst instances, force.

Since none of these practices can permanently secure religious absolutism by persuading the unpersuaded, an apophatic pluralism of the kind outlined here becomes a practical necessity for an ethical and reasonable religious life, since people who steadfastly believe in the normative truth of their religious traditions will find themselves inevitably contradicted by the passage of time. The dominant religions of today were all new religious movements at one time, and the symbols of authority that they deploy have not always existed. Given enough time, they will either die out or morph into their successors. If one book or city is held today to be at the center of the religious universe by a religious movement, it is certain that with the passage of enough time, these symbols will change and be surpassed. To think otherwise is, as Hick has insisted, a "historically short-sighted position," (21) for they will be undone by the sheer passage of time and change. This process of what I have elsewhere called "departicularization" (22) can no more be evaded by religions than by languages, cultures, and empires. None of the living religions that today claim our attention existed 5,000 years ago, and most of them have come into being only in the last millennium or so. If human culture continues progressing for further millennia into the future, the current religions will slowly be superseded by their successor forms, thereby rendering pluralism the only final truth in the theology of religions. While no religious absolutist will likely accept the implications of this insight (despite the fact that the religious ground upon which they stand is slowly shifting), it is integral to the study of religions, since religions and their teachings inevitably change over time.

If inclusivists move no further than accepting as axiomatic this first, apophatic stage of pluralism, they will have freed themselves, in principle at least, of the need to continue to construct ever more implausible epicycles to save the appearances of an overextended worldview. Only the most determined particularists will continue to reject this basic insight, while the inevitability of accepting it confirms it as a kind of law of religious history. This claim is not merely a Western, Enlightenment imposition on humanity's religious heritage (23) but an insight that was already ancient for the author of the Kena Upanisad, "It is different from the known;/it is different, too, from the unknown;/So have we heard from those of old/Who have revealed it to us." (24) In the New Testament, this mystical unknowing also has its occasional witness, "For now we see in a mirror dimly." (25) It would be tedious and superfluous in an academic essay in religious studies to enumerate multiple instances of the apophatic/cataphatic dialectic, for it is precisely the universality of this distinction in modes of religious discourse (even the silence of the Buddha on metaphysical and theological questions is itself a skillful deployment of apophatic discourse) that foretells the nonfinality of every religious orthodoxy.

Yet, nonfinality does not mean insignificance. A world of machines, decorated surfaces, and surface identities, as in modern, post-Enlightenment, hypercapitalist contexts, cannot provide as much meaning for people as lives embedded in the great sacred narratives that humanity has devotedly told and retold over the millennia. Many people want to live in the light of the Trinity, the Trimurti, the Trikaya, or some other stirring religious metaphor and not merely in the light of the Internet or a reductionistic science. Our full humanity requires sacred sustenance as much as technological and scientific support--perhaps even more. As long as this remains true of human beings, people will go on telling stories about the sacred and will make them the ultimate point of reference for their lives. But, what must always be part of this storytelling is the insight that our story can at any time be supplemented by a new episode, one as yet unimagined by us, as it has in the past, since no religion is without its revered or dishonored predecessors (and is it not the case that yesterday's heretics are often today's revered founders?). So long as at least some of us remember this necessary condition of every religious narrative while we continue to tell our sacred stories, we may soften for our religious descendents the disillusionment and sense of loss that religious movements go through when they die out or morph into their successors.

Contrary to those who might see theologies of religious pluralism as symptoms of decadence in the late stages of liberal Christianity, pluralism is the application of a historically sensitive philosophy of religions to the specific cases of individual religious movements. Thus, pluralism is the only responsible basis for global theologies and for religious studies. This may be rejected by people whose beliefs are based on authority, narrowly interpreted personal experiences, or tradition and by those who do not generalize from religious change in the past to religious change in the future. Yet, change is inevitable, and the dominant religious particularisms of today can no more avoid the changes, negations, and departicularizations of the future than those of the past could. If this insight were generally accepted and acknowledged by inclusivists, it would spell the end of inclusivistic interpretations of other religious movements as unaware beneficiaries of the fulfillments offered in one's own movement. (The ease with which people from competing inclusivisms can use this argument against each other shows that this sort of argument is invalid.) Working through the implications of the incapacity of religious absolutisms to secure themselves against change and the indifference of the unpersuaded should serve as the first step beyond the current impasse in theology of religions.

(1) S. Mark Heim, The Depth of the Riches: A Trinitarian Theology of Religious Ends (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001), p. 17.

(2) Gavin D'Costa appears to have pioneered the claim that pluralists are anonymous exclusivists in Gavin D'Costa, "The Impossibility of a Pluralist View of Religions," Religious Studies 32 (June, 1996): 223-232; see also idem, The Meeting of Religions and the Trinity (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2000), pp. 3, 19-20, and 22; and idem, Christianity and World Religions: Disputed Questions in the Theology of Religions (Oxford and Chichester, U.K., and Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), pp. 10-12 and 18.

(3) Aimee Upjohn Light, "Harris, Hick, and the Demise of the Pluralistic Hypothesis," J.E.S. 44 (Summer, 2009): 467-470.

(4) The increasingly common rejection of such pluralist approaches as Hick's as a form of the "liberal universalism" that grounds twentieth-century comparative religion and the older comparative theology is expressed in Reid B. Locklin and Hugh Nicholson, "The Return of Comparative Theology," Journal of the American Academy of Religion 78 (June, 2010): 480 and 482.

(5) I retain the language of the now-canonical tripolar typology, which can be traced back to Alan Race, Christians and Religious Pluralism (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1982), because it elegantly displays the logic of the available positions in this area of analysis. One reason for this is that no fewer than three positions can make sense of the variety of views offered in theology of religions; another is that attempts to specify more than three positions can inevitably be reduced to the three classic positions. The validity of the typology has recently been compellingly reasserted by Perry Schmidt-Leukel in "Exclusivism, Inclusivism, Pluralism: The Tripolar Typology--Clarified and Reaffirmed," in Paul F. Knitter, ed., The Myth of Religious Superiority: Multifaith Explorations of Religious Pluralism, Faith Meets Faith Series (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2005), pp. 13-27.

(6) The rightward turn in theology of religions has happened even though most progressive theologians working outside the subfield of theology of religions accept pluralism as a matter of course, even as axiomatic. Thus Peter C. Hodgson rejects postliberal theologies of Christian inclusivism and, in the spirit of a radical liberal theology "committed to religious pluralism," has declared that "[n]ow is the time to acknowledge that [claims about Christ as the only source of salvation for all humanity] are incompatible with a genuinely comparative theology, which brings with it the recognition that the revelation of salvific wisdom transcends and enriches Christ" (Peter C. Hodgson, Liberal Theology: A Radical Vision [Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2007], pp. 88 and 89).

(7) Light, "Harris, Hick," p. 468.

(8) John Hick, "The Non-Absoluteness of Christianity," in John Hick and Paul F. Knitter, eds. The Myth of Christian Uniqueness: Toward a Pluralistic Theology of Religions, Faith Meets Faith Series (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1987), p. 22. Knitter referred to "the somewhat labored image of the Rubicon" in the preface to this volume (p. ix). Knitter more recently has characterized this step as a "religious Rubicon" in The Myth of Religious Superiority: A Multifaith Exploration (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2005), p. vii.

(9) Hick and Knitter, Myth of Christian Uniqueness, p. vii.

(10) See, e.g., the essay on the Goan Inquisition by Klaus K. Klostermaier, "Facing Hindu Critique of Christianity," J.E.S. 44 (Summer, 2009): 461-466.

(11) Wilfred Cant-well Smith, "Idolatry: In Comparative Perspective," in Hick and Knitter, Myth of Christian Uniqueness, p. 61.

(12) For the sake of brevity, I often include exclusivism and inclusivism under the term "particularism," since both can be seen as stronger and weaker versions of the view that one particular body of religious teaching and practice is final and thus exclusively binding on humanity. I have argued for this usage in Kenneth Rose, "Doctrine and Tolerance in Theology of Religions: On Avoiding Exclusivist Hegemonism and Pluralist Reductionism," The Scottish Journal of Religious Studies 17 (Autumn, 1996): 119; and idem, "Keith Ward's Exceptionalist Theology of Revelations," New Blackfriars 79 (April, 1998): 171.

(13) The metaphor that likens inclusivistic attempts to universalize old doctrines to the epicycles employed to make the Ptolemaic geocentric universe conform to emerging data that eventually and inevitably led to the Copernican heliocentric universe was invented by John Hick. See, e.g., John Hick, God and the Universe of Faiths: Essays in the Philosophy of Religion (London: Macmillan, (1973),) pp. 8 and 125-130; idem, God Has Many Names (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1982), pp. 32-26; and idem, "Religious Pluralism and Absolute Claims," in John Hick, ed., Problems of Religious Pluralism (London: Macmillan Press, 1985), p. 52.

(14) D'Costa, Christianity and World Religions, pp. 174, 175, and 177.

(15) Ibid., p. 191.

(16) Ibid., p. 175.

(17) Ibid., p. 191.

(18) Ibid., p. 177.

(19) Ibid., pp. 167, 175, 177, and 190-191.

(20) John Hick, "A Brief Response to Aimee Upjohn Light," J.E.S. 44 (Fall, 2009): 691; see also John Hick, "The Next Step beyond Dialogue," in Knitter, Myth of Religious Superiority, p. 9, wherein Hick wrote that he prefers "to set forth the intellectual grounding for religions pluralism" instead of devising a new theology of religions. See also John Hick, "Exclusivism versus Pluralism in Religion: A Response to Kevin Meeker," Religious Studies 42 (June, 2006): 207-208; and idem, "The Possibility of Religious Pluralism: A Reply to Gavin D'Costa," Religious Studies 33 (June, 1997): 161-166.

(21) John Hick, An Interpretation of Religion: Human Responses to the Transcendent, 2nd ed. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004), p. xxxix.

(22) Kenneth Rose, "Interspirituality and Unsaying: Apophatic Strategies for Dcparticularizing Christ and the Church in Current Roman Catholic Mystical Movements," presented at the 2003 American Academy of Religion's "Mysticism: The Mysticism Group of the American Academy of Religion," available at, and http://www.eial. org/documents/Rose03.pdf. An abridged version appeared as '"Interspirituality': When Interfaith Dialogue Is but a Disguised Monologue," Hinduism Today 29 (October/November/December, 2007): 54.

(23) As summarized and rebutted in Paul F. Knitter, "Is the Pluralist Model a Western Imposition? A Response in Five Voices," in Knitter, Myth of Religious Superiority, pp. 33-34.

(24) Kena Upanisad 1.4, from Valerie Roebuck, tr. and ed., The Upanisads (New York: Penguin Books, 2003).

(25) 1 Cor. 13:12 (N.R.S.V.).

Kenneth Rose (post-Christian Vedantist) has taught philosophy and religious studies at Christopher Newport University, Newport News, VA, since 1992, where he is currently a tenured professor and also director of the Religious Studies Program. He previously taught at the University of Richmond (VA) in 1992 and at the University of Massachusetts in Boston in 1990; he was a Teaching Fellow at Harvard's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and at the Divinity School, 1987-91, and a Fellow at the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard, 1985-92. His B.A. in philosophy is from Ohio State University, Columbus, OH; his M.Div. from Harvard University Divinity School, Cambridge, MA; and his M.A. and Ph.D. (1992) in the Study of Religion both from Harvard University. His book, Knowing the Real: John Hick on the Cognitivity of Religions and Religious Pluralism, was published by Peter Lang in 1996. His twenty articles and reviews have appeared in academic and popular journals in the U.S., U.K., and India and as book chapters. He has made presentations at several professional meetings, and conferences.
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Date:Jan 1, 2011
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