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Truth and Difference in Religion

by s. mark heim
orbis, 248 pages, $19.95

Christians have always been interested in the fact that there are many faithful practitioners of religions other than Christianity. Some are ignorant of Christianity; others prefer to remain non-Christian even when they do know of Christianity. These facts provide some special and difficult problems for Christians. What is to be said about the eternal destiny of these faithful non-Christians? About the truth of what is taught and advocated by them? About the attitudes that Christians should take toward them?

Serious thought about these questions is certainly not a new feature of Christian life. Early Christian intellectuals like Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen had to address it in the context of their attempts to justify the existence and validity of what was then a minority religion: they tried to show that Christianity preserved everything good in the religions and quasi-religions of their time, and that it also contained excellences not found in them. Later Eastern Christians, faced, like John of Damascus in the seventh century, with an aggressively expansionist Islam, had to account for the puzzling fact of this new religion in the face of the existence of what they took to be the matchless and final religion of Christianity. European Christians in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had to account for the fact that the Christian world appeared ready to demonstrate with finality its superiority to the non-Christian world by conquering it militarily and economically. Could mass conversion and the Christianization of the earth be far behind? And Western Christians since the end of World War II have had to look back at all these earlier discussions and attempt a reconstrual of them in the light of guilt for association with colonialism, remorse for complicity in the horror of the Holocaust, and increasing doubt about the truth of Christianity’s doctrinal claims in the harsh light of secularist rationalism.

This last situation has produced a flood of writing and talk in recent years on the questions raised for Christians by religious plurality. Much of this has argued for a broadly pluralistic response, which involves a number of claims. The first is that all religions (or at least all the “great world religions”) are on a par. None is in any important respect superior to any other; their differences are only in religiously nonessential matters. The second claim is that to affirm the superiority of one religion over another is epistemologically dubious and morally disreputable”at best insular, at worst actively chauvinistic. These two claims imply a third, which is that it is possible to find a place outside any particular religious commitment from which to judge the validity of all such commitments.

Among the most prominent and vocal advocates of these responses have been John Hick and Wilfred Cantwell Smith, both Protestants, and Paul Knitter, a Roman Catholic. The pluralistic responses advocated by these men are not easily made compatible with orthodox Christianity”or indeed with the orthodoxy of any religion. Their promulgation has therefore prompted floods of discussion, much of it repetitive and unoriginal. S. Mark Heim’s new book is neither of these things: it offers a careful critique of pluralist positions, shows that there are factors common to them all that make them impossible to sustain, and offers a response to the problem that stands a chance of being both coherent and acceptable to Christians.

Heim, a Christian who teaches at the Andover Newton School of Theology in Massachusetts, begins by isolating the conceptual problems at the heart of pluralism. The main difficulty is that pluralists are caught between an implicit need to provide arguments for the superiority of their own views about human nature and human destiny over traditional religious views, on the one hand, and an explicit commitment to principles that exclude the legitimacy of just such arguments, on the other. Pluralists want to check and rebuke Christian tendencies to be (as they see it) imperialist and condescending in their judgments about non-Christian religions, but in doing this they are themselves engaging in precisely the activity they wish to rebuke: they are chiding Christians for the falsehood and ethical dubiousness of Christian views. And this is a kind of fundamental contradiction that no system of thought can long sustain.

Heim also shows the connections between this unresolvable tension and the desire, deep in the hearts of most pluralists, to find a religion-free conceptual and ethical space to stand from which to judge the desirability and usefulness of all religious phenomena. This is a hope common to many Enlightenment thinkers. It is the hope for arguments in some sphere of human inquiry that are at once value-free and incontrovertible. Descartes and Spinoza, in their different ways, hoped for this in metaphysics, as Locke did in epistemology. This is the hope that, more than any other, has fueled the philosophical engines of modernity.

But the hope has failed, as Heim shows in his extended and useful discussion of the work of the philosopher Nicholas Rescher. Philosophy (Descartes and Locke notwithstanding) cannot provide arguments for its own epistemic values that do not already presuppose those values. You cannot, for instance, show that perception is a generally reliable means of producing knowledge without already assuming that it is. Foundationalism, in other words, is unrealizable. But this means that philosophers must accept that their enterprises are always and necessarily involved with commitments of an evaluative kind, and that these commitments are not themselves based either upon evidence or upon rationally conclusive argument. They must also accept that it is possible to do philosophy with different commitments of these kinds”different orientations, as Rescher and Heim put it”and that the orientation adopted will have significant effects upon how philosophy is done and what philosophical results are obtained. Accepting this state of affairs (which Rescher calls “orientational pluralism”) involves the rejection of pluralism and its hopes. Any attempt to judge all religious phenomena from a religion-free place will necessarily fail.

But good though all this is, the really new thing about Heim’s book is his application of the antifoundationalist critique to the advocates of pluralism and his use of it to construct a different response to the difficult questions of religious plurality. He wants a response to these questions that recognizes genuine and essential religious difference; that provides a conceptual place for the tendencies that religions have to make claims to unsurpassability and finality; and that allows the possibility that faithful adherents of one religion may learn from the details of the lives of faithful religious others, as well as be justified in confronting those others with argument and action when it seems to them that there is reason to do so. Heim thinks that an antifoundationalist orientational pluralism of Rescher’s sort can do all this, and can also be acceptable to orthodox Christians.

Heim’s position amounts to a kind of religious particularism”in his case a Christian kind”that recognizes the fact and the possible value of other religious particularisms without trying to subsume them all into some grand religiously neutral theory. This way of thinking allows for the possibility that different religions may be deeply and genuinely different, offering their adherents competing goals that, however good each may be, are profoundly incompatible. Thus the title of Heim’s book: “salvations,” in the plural. He puts the matter this way: “Christians can consistently recognize that some traditions encompass religious ends which are real states of human transformation, distinct from that Christians seek””which is to say that Christians can consistently recognize that there are (or may be) many different religious ends, many different salvations.

Being an orthodox Christian, Heim is careful to add that while Christians both can and should make such a judgment, they must add to it the judgment that such alternate non-Christian religious ends are subordinate to the Christian end, finally to be encompassed by it. This claim is integral to the grammar of the Christian account and cannot be abandoned without also abandoning that account. Heim’s pluralist nonfoundationalist position allows him to say this with all the passion that an orthodox Christian needs while recognizing that non-Christians may say the same about the salvation their religion offers, and that they may be justified, epistemically speaking (even if mistaken), in so saying.

Heim’s work stands together with some other recent books, notably J. A. DiNoia’s The Diversity of Religions (1992), in showing the incoherence of pluralism as a response to religious plurality; in reaffirming the unsurpassability of Christ and of the salvation offered by him; in arguing for fundamental religious difference; in claiming not only that non-Christian religions do make a similar claim about the unsurpassability of what they offer, but also that they have a right and duty to do so; and finally, in asserting that Christians and faithful non-Christian religious people, just because of their deep religious differences, their passionate religious commitments, and their lack of a place to stand outside those commitments, are likely to have a very great deal to learn from serious engagement with one another.

All this means that we have here an important book on an important topic. I hope it will, if nothing else, convince its readers of the close links between the ideology of pluralism and a voracious, omnivorous modernity, whose surface tolerance of all religions is indistinguishable from a profound hostility to all. If it does this, it will also have contributed to what Christians so badly need just now: a recovery of the courage to use, in the public sphere and in the face of religious others, the language of orthodoxy, and to use it with joy.

Paul J. Griffiths is Associate Professor of Philosophy of Religion in the Divinity School at the University of Chicago.