The possibility of religious pluralism: a reply to Gavin D'Costa

(response to article in Religious Studies, vol. 32, 1996, p. 223)

John Hick

Religious Studies

Vol.33 No.2 (June 1997)


COPYRIGHT 1997 Cambridge University Press

            In 'The Impossibility of a Pluralist View of Religions' (Religious 
            Studies 32, June 1996) Gavin D'Costa argues that 'pluralism must 
            always logically be a form of exclusivism and that nothing called 
            pluralism really exists' (225). He sees himself as doing a 
            'conceptual spring cleaning exercise' (225). However the result is 
            to obscure clear and useful distinctions by confused and confusing 
            ones. Some further spring cleaning is therefore called for. 
            The religious pluralism that D'Costa is referring to is the view 
            that the great world religions constitute conceptually and 
            culturally different responses to an ultimate transcendent reality, 
            these responses being, so far as we can tell, more or less on a par 
            when judged by their fruits. And the religious exclusivism to which 
            he refers holds that one particular religion - in his case 
            Christianity - is alone fully true and salvific, the others being 
            either wholly misleading, or inferior imitations of or inferior 
            approximations to the one 'true' religion(1). 
            To say that the former of these two views, religious pluralism, is a 
            version of the latter, religious exclusivism, would be so totally 
            implausible that this cannot be what D'Costa means. Even if we 
            banished the word 'pluralism' the two rival views would remain so 
            manifestly different that we would still need different names for 
            D'Costa's real concern is, I think, that in distinguishing between, 
            on the one hand, those religious phenomena (Christianity, Judaism, 
            Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, Taoism ...) that are held to be 
            different culturally conditioned responses to the Transcendent, and 
            on the other hand those religious, or quasi-religious, phenomena (he 
            cites Nazism and the Jim Jones cult) which are held not to be 
            responses to the Transcendent but products of individual or 
            collective egoism, the pluralist is obviously using a criterion; and 
            D'Costa's thesis is that to use a criterion is to be an exclusivist. 
            For in operating with a criterion one is accepting something and 
            rejecting something else; and this is what D'Costa choses to mean by 
            exclusivism. 'I want to suggest,' he says, 'that there is no such 
            thing as pluralism because all pluralists are committed to holding 
            some form of truth criteria and by virtue of this, anything that 
            falls foul of such criteria is excluded from counting as truth' 
            That religious pluralists do employ criteria is certainly true, even 
            though D'Costa at one point slips into saying that 'Hick holds that 
            all religions are paths to the "Real"' (227, my italics). The main 
            criterion is whether a movement is a context of human transformation 
            from natural self-centeredness to a new orientation centered in the 
            Transcendent, this salvific transformation being expressed in an 
            inner peace and joy and in compassionate love for others. (More 
            about where this criterion come from presently.) But to think that 
            using criteria, as such, constitutes exclusivism, although 
            intelligible in a purely notional and trivial sense, is much more 
            misleading than helpful. In this trivial and misleading sense one is 
            an exclusivist when one admires Mahatma Gandhi and the Dalai Lama 
            but condemns Hitler and Stalin; or when an umpire declares a foul in 
            football; or even when one distinguishes between left and right, or 
            night and day, or makes such an innocent statement as that it is 
            raining! For to make an assertion about anything is to deny its 
            contrary, and to propose a theory or view about anything is to 
            reject alternative views. But to label all judgments, all proposing 
            of theories and hypotheses, all expressions of opinion, as 
            exclusivist would be to empty the term of any useful meaning. For 
            there could then be no non-exclusivist statements, so that the term 
            would cease to mark any distinction. We can hardly suppose that 
            D'Costa means to affirm the self-destructive principle that to use 
            criteria is to be an exclusivist. 
            But in the special field of religion, when we hold that such 
            religious and quasi-religious movements as Nazism, which set out to 
            exterminate the Jewish race, or (on a much smaller scale) the 
            Peoples' Temple of the 1978 Jonestown mass suicide, or the Branch 
            Davidians of the 1993 Waco massacre, or the Order of the Solar 
            Temple of the 1994 Swiss mass suicide, or the Aum Shin Rikyo cult 
            which put sarin nerve gas in the Tokyo underground system in 1995, 
            are not authentic human responses to God/the Divine/the Dharma/the 
            Real/the Transcendent, are we perhaps being exclusivist in a more 
            substantial sense? It is of course possible to use the term in this 
            very extended way; but it would in my view be confusing and 
            unhelpful to do so. For it would obscure the important distinction 
            between, on the one hand, claiming that one's own religion is the 
            only 'true' religion, for which 'exclusivism' is surely the natural 
            descriptive term(2) and, on the other hand, the idea that there is a 
            plurality of 'true' religions, for which 'pluralism' is surely the 
            natural descriptive term. Gavin D'Costa and others will still want 
            to argue against this latter position, and rather than having to 
            invent a new name for it, would it not be more sensible to continue 
            to use the established name? 
            However D'Costa believes that he is making a logical point: 
            'pluralism', he says, 'operates within the same logical structure as 
            exclusivism' (226). But in fact religious exclusivism and religious 
            pluralism are of different logical kinds, the one being a 
            self-committing affirmation of faith and the other a philosophical 
            hypothesis.(3) The hypothesis is offered as the best available 
            explanation, from a religious as distinguished from a naturalistic 
            point of view, of the data of the history of religions. Pluralism is 
            thus not another historical religion making an exclusive religious 
            claim, but a meta-theory about the relation between the historical 
            religions. Its logical status as a second-order philosophical theory 
            or hypothesis is different in kind from that of a first-order 
            religious creed or gospel. And so the religious pluralist does not, 
            like the traditional religious exclusivist, consign non-believers to 
            perdition, but invites them to try to produce a better explanation 
            of the data. 
            D'Costa has not taken note of this basic point. He asks, 'how does 
            John Hick know that the Real is beyond all language, incapable of 
            any description' (229). The answer of course is that he does not 
            know this. He is offering an hypothesis to explain how it is that 
            the great world religions, with their different concepts of the 
            Ultimate, nevertheless seem to be equally effective (and of course 
            also equally ineffective) contexts of the salvific human 
            With this clarification we can now take up the legitimate question 
            that D'Costa raises. When we judge that Nazism, the Peoples' Temple, 
            the Branch Davidians, the Order of the Solar Temple, and the Aum 
            Shin Rikyo cult, are not authentic responses to the 
            Divine/Ultimate/Real, where did we get the criterion which entitles 
            us to say this? 
            The answer is very simple; but before coming to it I must point to a 
            regrettable misrepresentation which has crept into D'Costa's 
            article. D'Costa professes to see 'an ambiguity as to how Hick would 
            answer this question' (228), an ambiguity between thinking of the 
            Ultimate as a personal deity and thinking of it as an ineffable 
            transcendent reality ('the Real') to which, because it is ineffable, 
            the personal/impersonal distinction does not apply.(4) The two 
            different ideas of the Ultimate as a divine Person, and as an 
            ineffable Reality that cannot be described as either personal or 
            impersonal, both occur in my writings, the theistic view in writings 
            in the 1970s and those embodying the concept of the Real in the 
            1980s and 90s, the latter being presented as an explicit departure 
            from the former position. However D'Costa suggests that 'in parts of 
            An Interpretation of Religion (1989)' (228) 'Hick's incipient theism 
            leaks out' (229), so that the two incompatible positions are held 
            simultaneously and there is thus ambiguity as to which is intended. 
            He does not say which parts of An Interpretation he thinks embody a 
            theistic view, and in fact there are none. There is no 'incipient 
            theism' in the book; and to treat an earlier position, and a later 
            one which replaces it, as jointly constituting an ambiguity is as 
            inappropriate as it would be to say that D'Costa's position is 
            ambiguous because in his present article he renounces an earlier 
            view for which he had previously argued! 
            Returning from this corrective we come to the question of the source 
            of the criterion by which we judge Nazism, the Order of the Solar 
            Temple, etc. not to be authentic responses to the 
            Divine/Ultimate/Real. The answer is that this criterion is a basic 
            moral insight which Christians have received from Christian 
            teachings, Jews from Jewish teachings, Muslims from Islamic 
            teachings, Hindus from Hindu teachings, Buddhists from Buddhist 
            teachings, and so on. And within the terms of the pluralistic 
            hypothesis this criterion represents the basic moral consensus of 
            all the great world faiths. The Golden Rule, in which this basic 
            consensus is encapsulated, is common to (in historical order) 
            Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Zoroastrianism, 
            Christianity and Islam.(5) 
            But why select these particular traditions in the first place, 
            rather than Satanism, Nazism, the Order of the Solar Temple, etc., 
            as providing the right criterion? The answer arises out of the route 
            by which the pluralistic hypothesis is arrived at. It starts from 
            the basic faith that religious experience is not purely imaginative 
            projection but is also (whilst including such projection) a 
            cognitive response to a transcendent reality. The hypothesis is thus 
            explicitly a religious interpretation of religion, and as such it 
            originates within a particular religious tradition - in my own case 
            Christianity. As a Christian, then, one accepts that the sense of 
            the presence of God within the Christian community is indeed an 
            awareness of a divine presence; and one sees as confirmation of this 
            the self-evidently valuable and desirable 'fruit of the Spirit' 
            which St Paul listed as 'love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, 
            goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control' (Galatians 5: 22). 
            It is important to recognize that religious experience and its 
            fruits in life cohere together; for if the fruits in this case were 
            hatred, misery, aggression, unkindness, impatience, violence and 
            lack of self-control this would lead us to deny the authenticity of 
            the experience. 
            One then becomes aware that there are other great religious 
            traditions within which people conceive and experience the 
            Divine/Ultimate/Real differently, but the moral and spiritual fruits 
            of which nevertheless seem to be essentially similar to those of 
            Christian faith and experience. And so one extends to them the basic 
            faith that their religious experience also is a cognitive response 
            to a transcendent reality. 
            At this point, it would be possible to see the theistic traditions 
            as responses to different deities, Christians responding to the Holy 
            Trinity, Jews to Adonai, Muslims to Allah, theistic Hindus to Vishnu 
            or to Shiva, and so on. But on reflection such a polytheism, 
            although theoretically possible, creates more problems than it 
            solves. Does the Holy Trinity preside over Christian countries, 
            Allah over Islamic countries, Vishnu and Shiva over different parts 
            of India? And what about the increasing number of places in which 
            more than one religion is practised? In the city of Birmingham, 
            England, for example, does the Holy Trinity answer prayers in 
            Edgbaston, but Allah in Small Heath, the war guru of the Sikh faith 
            in parts of Handsworth and Vishnu in other parts of Handsworth? And 
            when we enlarge our vision to take account of the non-theistic 
            faiths, particularly Buddhism, the problem is multiplied. 
            And so if we are looking for the most reasonable, the least 
            problem-prone, explanation of the data, the pluralistic hypothesis 
            offers itself as an obvious solution. The process of reasoning which 
            I have described from a Christian point of view is also of course 
            appropriate for adherents of any other of the world religions who 
            are also philosophers seeking to understand our global human 
            situation in relation to the Transcendent. 
            One further point. Possibly the real heart of D'Costa's concern is 
            that according to the pluralistic hypothesis the claim made in 
            varying degrees by each of the great religions to embody the full 
            and final truth, and to be in that respect uniquely superior to all 
            other religions, has to be modified. Thus the pluralist theory 
            denies an aspect of the self-understanding of each faith in so far 
            as each sees itself as having the only fully authentic revelation or 
            enlightenment. D'Costa is very critical of this. But people who live 
            in glass houses shouldn't throw stones! Has it escaped D'Costa's 
            notice that he also contradicts the self-understanding of every 
            religion except his own? If Muslims or Hindus or Buddhists etc. 
            think that their tradition has the final truth, D'Costa confidently 
            holds that they are mistaken. His difference from a religious 
            pluralist is that he regards his own tradition as the sole exception 
            to the general principle that claims to be the one and only 'true' 
            religion are mistaken! But whilst the difference between religious 
            pluralism and religious exclusivism is, in their logical structure, 
            as narrow as this, there is still an important difference in their 
            religious outlooks and practical outworkings. 
            I have been replying here to D'Costa's attack upon what he calls 
            'philosophical pluralism'. But this is not really distinct from what 
            he calls' practical or pragmatic pluralism', as is clear from the 
            discussion above about the moral criterion. Paul Knitter's 
            distinctive contribution (with which I am fully in agreement) is to 
            stress the liberative social and political aspects of this. There 
            are good answers to the questions that D'Costa raises about this 
            also, but the present response is already long enough. 
            Institute for Advanced Research in the Humanities, University of 
            Birmingham, Edgbaston, Birmingham, B15 2TT 
            1 D'Costa presents himself in this article as an exclusivist when he 
            says that inclusivism (which he has previously advocated) and 
            pluralism are both 'sub-types of exclusivism' (225). 
            2 There is however now a difference within the camp of those who 
            hold that Christianity is the only true religion. Some (such as 
            Alvin Plantinga, 'Pluralism: A Defense of Religious Exclusivism' in 
            Thomas D. Senor, ed., The Rationality of Belief and the Plurality of 
            Faith, Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1995) continue 
            to speak of themselves as Exclusivists, whilst others (such as 
            Alister McGrath in Dennis Ockholm and Timothy Phillips, eds., More 
            Than One Way? Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World, Grand 
            Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1995), perhaps feeling that 
            'exclusivist' sounds unattractive to many people today, now call 
            themselves Particularists. 
            3 The relevant chapter in my An Interpretation of Religion (London: 
            Macmillan, and New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989) is called 
            'The Pluralistic Hypothesis'. 
            4 D'Costa describes my position as 'transcendental agnosticism' 
            (228). But it is a mistake to equate the concept of ineffability 
            with agnosticism. Agnosticism in this context is the view that the 
            Ultimate is either personal or non-personal but we don't know which. 
            That the Ultimate is ineffable means that it is beyond the scope of 
            our human conceptual systems, including the personal/impersonal 
            5 For supporting details see An Interpretation of Religion, chap. 
            17, section 5.