Academic journal article Theological Studies

Religious Knowledge in the Pluralist Theology of Religions

Academic journal article Theological Studies

Religious Knowledge in the Pluralist Theology of Religions

Article excerpt

That the agenda for the contemporary theology of religions is being set by the so-called pluralist school, represented by, among others, John Hick, Paul Knitter, and Wilfred Cantwell Smith, there can be little doubt. The pluralist theology of religions is characterized by the "move away from insistence on the superiority or finality of Christ and Christianity toward a recognition of the independent validity of other ways."(1) Within the framework of pluralist discourse, the term "plurality" no longer denotes the mere fact of multiplicity or diversity. It now includes the concept of "parity," or at least of rough parity, that is to say, the quality or state of being equal or equivalent. Langdon Gilkey can write that in our day the acknowledgement of religious plurality involves the (perhaps reluctant) recognition "that in some sense the efficacy or even superiority of Christianity are claims we can no longer make, or can make only with great discomfort." Expressed positively, the contemporary experience of plurality involves the "recognition of the co-validity and the co-efficacy of other religions."(2)

This recognition is the shared property of pluralist theologians; it establishes a unity among them that far outweighs any divergences occasioned by the tendency of a pluralist to place particular accents in his or her theology. Gilkey has examined the cultural and theological dimensions of the pluralist approach to other religions. For me there is also a philosophical or epistemological dimension that may well be more fundamental than any properly theological considerations.(3) All pluralist proposals for a new valuation of other traditions appear to turn on one major issue, and the pluralist approach to this issue seems to be characterized by an agreement on certain basic principles or presuppositions. The issue is the possibility of religious knowledge,(4) that is to say, the knowledge of whatever is regarded as the object of human beings' religious activities. The religious object can be conceived in a variety of ways (e.g. as knowledge, as a personal God, as the extinction of self, etc.). It is religious because it constitutes the ultimate concern of those who pursue it.(5) Pluralist theologies regard all religious traditions as more or less equally well placed regarding the possibility of knowledge of the religious object. This conviction is born of a more fundamental agreement about religious knowledge in general. Despite their manifest differences,(6) and despite Knitter's recent insistence that the pluralist theology of religions is "a project that is not yet complete and that has various proposed versions,"(7) pluralist theologians are united in regarding all religious knowledge as evolulionary, culturally determined, pragmatic, and polar. This fourfold characterization of religious knowledge is discernible, to a greater or lesser degree, in all the major pluralist thinkers, though particular authors tend to concentrate specifically on one of these features. In this article, I will illustrate this claim by discussing several representative pluralist authors and by referring also to parallel lines of thought in others. What results is a sketch of what I call the emerging pluralist epistemology. As Wilfred Cantwell Smith acknowledges, the task of developing a pluralist epistemology is interlinked with, not prior to the task of attaining the universalist vision to which pluralist theology aspires.(8)

EVOLUTIONARY CHARACTER OF RELIGIOUS KNOWLEDGE

Pluralist theologians are united in what might be described as an essentially teleological or evolutionary vision of the emergence of religious knowledge. According to this vision, the world's religions are engaged in a cooperative endeavor, a shared attempt to identify the contours of the religious object which inevitably eludes us. As I cannot canvas the work of all pluralist theologians to illustrate my claim, I shall restrict myself to two highly representative pluralist thinkers, Paul Knitter and Wilfred Cantwell Smith. …

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