Toward an Apophatic Pluralism: Beyond Confessionalism, Epicyclism, and Inclusivism in Theology of Religions

Article excerpt


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. …