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Islam and Pluralism ( 2 Jun 2014, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Religious Pluralism and Islam - Part One

 

By John Hick

(Lecture delivered to the Institute for Islamic Culture and Thought, Tehran, in February 2005)

 The subject of the relationship between the religions is extremely important, even more so today than in the past. For centuries almost every war between the nations has involved religion, not as its primary cause, but as a validating and intensifying factor. However I am going to treat religious diversity now as a topic in the philosophy of religion, although in the course of doing so it will emerge that some conceptions of this relationship are much more easily exploited to justify and encourage war and exploitation than others.

Why is this a philosophical problem? Each religion is accustomed to think of itself as both the one and only true faith, or at least the truest and best. Must not the situation, then, simply be that one of them is right and the rest wrong, either absolutely or only relatively wrong?

But here is a consideration which makes this view of the situation problematic. In the vast majority of cases throughout the world, probably 98% or so, the religion to which a person adheres (and also against which some rebel) depends on where they were born. Someone born into a Muslim family in a Muslim country, or indeed a Muslim family in a non-Muslim country, is very likely to become a Muslim. Someone born into a Christian family is equally likely to become a Christian. And the same is true of Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, and Taoists.

 It is very unlikely that someone born into a Buddhist family in Tibet will grow up as a Christian or a Muslim; very unlikely that someone born into a Muslim family in Iran or in Pakistan will grow up as a Christian or a Buddhist; and so on round the world. The historical fact is that we inherit, and always have inherited, our religion together with our language and our culture. And the religion which has formed us from childhood naturally seems to us to be obviously true; it fits us and we fit it as usually none other can. It is true that there are individual conversions from one faith to another, but these are statistically insignificant in comparison with the massive transmission of faith from generation to generation within the same tradition.

How then are we to understand this global situation in which, due to the accident of birth, we all start from within what we have traditionally regarded as the one true faith? To enquire into the relationship between the religions is clearly to ask a difficult but unavoidable question.

Several factors make the question especially urgent today. One is that we now have available to us a much greater knowledge about the other world religions than was readily available even a generation ago. Another is that the different faiths are no longer concentrated almost exclusively within different nations which are wholly of that faith. There are, for example, now millions of Muslims living in Western Europe, some two million in my own country, Britain. Indeed in the city of Birmingham, where I live, there are well over a hundred mosques – not all of them purpose-built with traditional Islamic architecture, although there is a growing number of these, but also a number houses converted to local prayer houses.

The city also includes a substantial number of Sikhs and Hindus, and smaller numbers of Jews and Buddhists and Bahai’is, as well as many members of all the many different branches of Christianity, all amidst a large secular or nominally or post-Christian population. We all live together in the same city, and on the whole without friction and indeed often with very positive relationships. Now the time has come to consider the theological implications of this. We all, within each faith, need our theologians and philosophers to give thought to the overall question of how to understand the fact of religious diversity. Should we see it as something to be regretted, or as something divinely ordained?

A complicating factor which is not often noticed is that the individuals and communities to which the biblical and Quranic revelations came many centuries ago, to restrict our attention to these two, had a very limited awareness of the size of the earth and of its population and of the variety of peoples and cultures and faiths that it contains. Their horizon extended no further than the Middle Eastern and Mediterranean world. As they expanded, of course, India and China, and later Russia and later again the Americas came within the scope of their awareness. But the original message was received and expressed in terms of the language and culture of a relatively small part of the world. But today we have to think globally, and to consider the relationship of the entire human race to the divine source of revelation.

The literature on this subject has been growing rapidly during the last twenty or so years and is now vast, with hundreds of new books and articles being published every year. It is still mostly in English, though with an increasing amount in German, and also with a growing amount in the languages of several Muslim countries, including Iran and Turkey.

It has become widely accepted that there are three possible schools of thought, which have come to be called exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism. Let us look at exclusivism first.

This is most easily described in terms of any one particular religion rather than in general terms. Since I know more about Christianity, and the Christian literature on this subject, than any other, I shall be more confident in describing it as a Christian position. But you readily can translate it into terms of Islam, or indeed of any other religion.

As a Christian position, exclusivism is the belief that Christianity is the one and only true faith and that salvation, which Christian exclusivists understand as entry into heaven, or paradise, is confined to Christians. For many centuries this was taken for granted by most Christians and was enshrined in such official declarations as that of the Council of Florence (1438-45 CE) that ‘no one remaining outside the Catholic church, not just pagans, but also Jews or heretics or schismatics, can become partakers of eternal life; but they will go to the “everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels,” unless before the end of life they are joined to the church’. At that time Muslims were classified by the church as heretics, and came under that heading in this condemnation. But as early as the mid-nineteenth century the Catholic Church – which constitutes the largest part of Christianity – was beginning to qualify this.

The Catholic Church can never bring itself to say directly that any of its earlier official pronouncements were wrong, but it does sometimes leave them behind in the past and proceed now to say something different. But it was only at the second Vatican Council in the 1960’s that it officially recognised that salvation can occur within other religions. However this recognition is qualified in a way that we shall come to when we turn to inclusivism. Unqualified exclusivism is still strongly maintained by a small minority of fundamentalist Catholics, but much more widely by many Protestant (i.e. non-Catholic) fundamentalist Christians.

The leading philosophical defender of Christian exclusivism is Alvin Plantinga of Notre Dame University. He is a high-powered logician and a leading apologist for a very conservative form of Christianity, his own background being in Dutch Calvinism. The argument of his article “Pluralism: A Defence of Exclusivism” is basically simple and straightforward, namely that anyone who is firmly convinced that they know the final truth is fully entitled dogmatically to affirm this and to affirm that all beliefs inconsistent with it are therefore mistaken.

 It is not necessary for the exclusivist to know anything about other religions, beyond the fact that they are different from Christianity and have different beliefs, because he or she knows a priori that they are mistaken. Plantinga argues that, in so doing, exclusivists are not being arrogant or imperialistic, and are not offending against any sound epistemological principles. Knowing Alvin, I know that he is not personally arrogant, and nor does any exclusivist have to be arrogant and imperialistic about it, even though some are. But, for me, that is not the issue. Nor is it more than a preliminary issue that a claim that your own group alone knows the final truth is not epistemically out of order.

For this is a very low threshold for any belief-system to have to cross. It justifies equally the claim, for example, that the South Korean evangelist Sun Yung Moon is the final prophet and that his followers alone know the final truth; or the claim of Seventh Day Adventists within Christianity, or of Ahmadiyya Muslims within Islam, that it is they who alone know the truth. The Plantinga defence justifies equally the claim of any group anywhere, large or small, that it alone possesses the absolute truth. And yet logical and epistemological permissibility seems to be the only issue that concerns Plantinga in his defence of exclusivism. He has tried in his more recent book Warranted Christian Belief to offer a broader apologetic for Christianity.

But epistemic warrant or permissibility is much too narrow a concern. For me, what is at stake is whether it is realistic today to ignore the global context in which we live, and the fact that other religions, and I am thinking now particularly of Islam, turn human beings away from selfish self-concern to serve God, just as much as Christianity does. Plantinga does not take account of this. The global particularities and complexities of real life have no place in his thinking. Further, his approach is very cerebral, focussed entirely on propositional beliefs, and he does not, in his defence of exclusivism, discuss the question of salvation, or of the moral and spiritual fruits of faith outside Christianity. Probably, if asked about the salvation of the non-Christian majority of the human race, he would say that this is something that only God knows. But if only God knows it, how can Plantinga, or any other exclusivist, know that his own group alone has the final and saving truth?

I don’t know to what extent there are Muslim exclusivists, believing that only Muslims, or perhaps only those of the three religions of the Book, can enter Paradise. I know that there are some, because I have myself once been told very firmly by a Muslim that I will go to hell if I do not convert to his particular minority form of Islam. And in so far as there are Muslim exclusivists, my criticism of it applies equally to them also.

But the basic criticism of both Christian and Muslim exclusivism is that it denies by implication that God, the sole creator of the world and of all humanity, is loving, gracious and merciful, and that His love and mercy extend to all humankind. If God is the creator of the entire human race, is it credible that God would set up a system by which hundreds of millions of men, women and children, the majority of the human race are destined through no fault of their own to eternal torment in hell? I say ‘through no fault of their own’ because it cannot be anyone’s fault that they were born where they were instead of within what exclusivism regards as the one limited area of salvation.

One exclusivist Christian philosopher, William Lane Craig, has tried to meet this difficulty by appealing to the idea of ‘middle knowledge’, the idea that God knows what every human being would do in all conceivable circumstances. He then claims that God knows of all those who have not had the Christian Gospel presented to them that, if it were presented to them, they would reject it. It is therefore not unjust that they, constituting the majority of humanity, should be condemned. But this is manifestly an a priori dogma, condemning hundreds of millions of people without any knowledge of them; and even many other very conservative Christian philosophers have found it repugnant. For on any reasonable view exclusivism, practiced within any religion, is incompatible with the existence of a God whose grace and mercy extends to the entire human race.

I turn next to inclusivism. In its Christian form this is the belief that, on the one hand, salvation for anyone depends solely on the atoning sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, but on the other hand that this salvation is available not only to Christians but in principle to all human beings. Thus non-Christians can be included within the sphere of Christian salvation - hence the term ‘inclusivism’. In the words of a notable Catholic theologian, Karl Rahner, they can, even without their knowledge, be ‘anonymous Christians’. That phrase has been offensive to many non-Christians, who ask whether Christians would like to be classified as anonymous Muslims, or anonymous Hindus? But without the use of that particular phrase, inclusivism is today the most widely held position among Christian theologians and church leaders. It has for them the advantage that on the one hand it maintains the unique centrality and normativeness of the Christian gospel, whilst on the other hand it does not entail the unacceptable conclusion that all non-Christians go to hell.

But it does nevertheless have what are to some of us unacceptable implications. To put it graphically, consider the analogy of the solar system, with God as the sun at the centre and the religions as the planets circling around that centre. Inclusivism then holds that the life-giving warmth and light of the sun falls directly only on our earth, the Christian church, and is then reflected off it in lesser degrees to the other planets, the other religions. Or if you prefer an economic analogy, the wealth of divine grace falls directly upon the church and then trickles down in diluted forms to the people of the other faiths below. And the serious question that we have to ask is whether this is an honestly realistic account of the human situation as we observe it on the ground.

Starting again, then, and restricting attention for the moment to Christianity and Islam, both affirm the reality of God, the gracious and merciful nature of God, the justice of God, the unity of humankind as created by God, the divine command that we should deal honestly and kindly with one another, and the fact of a life to come. We both affirm a divine reality transcending the material world.

Let me stay for a moment with this last point. Philosophically, it means that we reject the non-realist forms of religion according to which God is not a reality independently of ourselves but only an idea or an ideal in our minds. This was powerfully initiated in the nineteenth century by Lugwig Feuerbach and is advocated today by such writers as my personal friend, but philosophical foe, Don Cupitt. On the one hand, unless we believe in the validity of any of the philosophical proofs of the existence of God, which I do not, there is no proof that non-realism in religion is wrong. Nor of course is there any proof that it is right. The real issue is epistemological, between the three options of naïve realism, critical realism, and non- or anti-realism.

Critical realism, developed by American philosophers in the last century in relation to sense perception, is the view that there is an existing reality beyond our own minds, but that we can only be aware of it in the forms made possible by our own cognitive capacities and conceptual repertoire. To this we have to add the principle of critical trust, the principle that it is rational to trust our experience, except when we have good reason not to. I hold that this principle properly applies to religious experience also. For it is a principle about apparently cognitive experience as such.

This means that it is fully rational to trust our human religious experience of the divine except when we have good reason not to; but that the divine reality is necessarily known to us in the forms made possible by our own conceptual resources and spiritual practices. This stands between the naïve realism whose religious form is fundamentalism, and the non or anti-realism which denies any divine reality transcending (though also immanent within) the material universe.

This is a subject deserving of a much fuller treatment than is possible here, and I have in fact discussed it at length elsewhere, particularly in An Interpretation of Religion – of which, incidentally, a new edition including a response to critics, has recently been published. Let me add that Don Cupitt’s more recent work, expressing a strong post-modernist philosophy, is to me equally unacceptable. He proclaims that there is no such thing as truth. Truth is something that we and is advocated today by such writers as my personal friend, but philosophical foe, Don Cupitt. On the one hand, unless we believe in the validity of any of the philosophical proofs of the existence of God, which I do not, there is no proof that non-realism in religion is wrong. Nor of course is there any proof that it is right.

The real issue is epistemological, between the three options of naïve realism, critical realism, and non- or anti-realism. Critical realism, developed by American philosophers in the last century in relation to sense perception, is the view that there is an existing reality beyond our own minds, but that we can only be aware of it in the forms made possible by our own cognitive capacities and conceptual repertoire. To this we have to add the principle of critical trust, the principle that it is rational to trust our experience, except when we have good reason not to. I hold that this principle properly applies to religious experience also. For it is a principle about apparently cognitive experience as such.

 This means that it is fully rational to trust our human religious experience of the divine except when we have good reason not to; but that the divine reality is necessarily known to us in the forms made possible by our own conceptual resources and spiritual practices. This stands between the naïve realism whose religious form is fundamentalism, and the non or anti-realism which denies any divine reality transcending (though also immanent within) the material universe.

This is a subject deserving of a much fuller treatment than is possible here, and I have in fact discussed it at length elsewhere, particularly in An Interpretation of Religion – of which, incidentally, a new edition including a response to critics, has recently been published. Let me add that Don Cupitt’s more recent work, expressing a strong post-modernist philosophy, is to me equally unacceptable. He proclaims that there is no such thing as truth. Truth is something that we each make up for ourselves all the time. But he proclaims this as the fundamental truth which he wants us all to accept! In other words, he does not apply his philosophy to itself.

This is the same flaw that undermined logical positivism. There is thus, as it seems to me, a fundamental incoherence in which we live all the time in daily life – when something seems to be there we take that it is there, unless we have some reason to doubt it as illusion or which we live all the time in daily life – when something seems to be there we take it that it is there, unless we have some reason to doubt it as illusion or delusion.

Source: http://www.johnhick.org.uk/article11.pdf

URL: http://www.newageislam.com/islam-and-pluralism/john-hick/religious-pluralism-and-islam---part-one/d/87328

 

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