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Nemo Venit Ad Patrem Nisi Per Me

Nemo Venit Ad Patrem Nisi Per Me

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Published by: Journal of Undergraduate Research on Jul 15, 2009
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PHILOSOPHY
Nemo Venit Ad Patrem Nisi Per Me
Charles Tyler
T
his essay engages John Hick’s assessment of his own theory of religious pluralism. Iconsider his claim that religious pluralism is merely a second-order philosophical theory. If thisclaim is true, then there could be an informed individual who took Christianity to comprise a setof true religious beliefs and who additionally took religious pluralism to be a true philosophicaltheory. By contrast, this paper contends that there is no such thing as an informed Christianpluralist. Christianity and religious pluralism are mutually exclusive belief systems. Informedbelief in one entails the denial of the other.
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 This essay has three sections. The first section reformulates a dialogue between AlvinPlantinga and John Hick. I present this dialogue because at its close Hick makes the assertionthat religious pluralism is a second-order philosophical theory, and I shall reject this assertion inthe third section of this paper. The second section lays out the fundamental components of JohnHick's version of religious pluralism, which was proposed at length in Hick's book 
 An Interpretation of Religion
, more briefly in two essays entitled "Toward a Philosophy of ReligiousPluralism" and “Religious Pluralism and Salvation,” and defended from recent objections in hisbook 
 Dialogues in the Philosophy of Religion
. Hereafter, I will refer to the view espoused inthose works merely as "religious pluralism." In the third section I oppose Hick's appraisal of hisview as a "second-order philosophical theory." I argue that religious pluralism, if it is to remainconsistent, must assume certain religious claims that are contrary to several essential doctrines of the Church. Furthermore, I contend that any view that entails the denial of these doctrines is alsoa set of religious beliefs. Viewing religious pluralism as a set of religious beliefs allows us to seethat it is a competitor to Christian belief, rather than a description of how Christian belief isrelated to the other world religions. I conclude that it is impossible to be a Christian pluralist, andthus Hick’s retort to Plantinga, that religious pluralism is a second-order philosophical theory, isfalse.
I. The Dialogue
In “A Defense of Religious Exclusivism,”
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Alvin Plantinga seeks to disarm severalaccusations that he thinks pluralists might make about exclusivism. Among the accusations is thecharge that the religious exclusivist’s religious beliefs are arbitrary. The pluralist presumes that,by all odds, the exclusivist would not have the particular religious beliefs that he does if he hadbeen born at a completely different time and place to completely different parents. ProfessorPlantinga, say, would not be a Calvinist if he had been born in Sri Lanka in the year 1310 (John
 
Calvin, after all, was not born until 1509). So the exclusivist’s religious beliefs depend onaccidents of birth, and this makes them arbitrary. Plantinga makes several responses to this lineof reasoning, but I wish to focus one in a particular.
3
Plantinga responds by pointing out that thepluralist’s reasoning, if it undermines exclusivism, undermines pluralism as well. Had John Hick been born in ancient Carthage, he would not be a religious pluralist. This response has come tobe known as Plantinga’s
tu quoque
(‘you, too’) response. To it, Hick replies that Plantinga is nottaking into account the fundamental difference between Calvinism (or, for that matter, any otherset of religious claims that is believed to be exclusively correct) and pluralism. While Calvinismconstitutes a set of religious beliefs, religious pluralism is merely a second-order
 philosophical
 theory.Hick’s reply to the
tu quoque
response is quite brief. He does not tell us why a second-order philosophical theory is somehow exempt from the pluralist’s original argument. In theabsence of any such explanation, I can only speculate as to why this might be the case. Aplausible explanation is that the two sets of propositions that constitute Christianity andpluralism are different
kinds
of propositions. Perhaps the fact that our beliefs are products of where and when and to whom we were born undermines the confidence we should have incertain beliefs, but not the confidence we should have in others. But I will not investigate thisissue. For my purposes, the truth or falsity of this suggestion will not matter, because I argue thatreligious pluralism is not any different from Christianity in the way that Hick thinks is relevant.That is, I argue that religious pluralism is not simply a second-order philosophical theory(perhaps it is that), but rather it is, curiously, also a set of 
religious
propositions. In the nextsection I will present Hick’s theory of religious pluralism, and in the third section I will offer myassessment of it as a first-order set of religious beliefs.
II. John Hick's Religious Pluralism
Religious pluralism is a hypothesis proposed by Hick as an explanation of severalpropositions about the beliefs of the adherents of the world religions.
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Hick first observes that theworld abounds with the adherents of the world religions. Secondly, he notes the "fact of religiouspluralism," namely that "there are many
different 
traditions of religious life and thought"
5
 [emphasis added]. Thirdly, he assumes what he calls the "basic religious conviction." Hick explains: "By the basic religious conviction I mean the conviction that the realm of religiousexperience and belief is our human response to a transcendent divine reality or realities."
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Morenegatively, the basic religious conviction is the conviction that not all of religious experience isillusory. It is important to note that Hick not only assumes the basic religious conviction, but heassumes it in a particular form. Some of the adherents of the world religions will assent to thebasic religious conviction with the caveat that it is only their particular religion that is alegitimate response to the divine reality. Hick, on the other hand, assumes that the religiousexperiences and the beliefs of the adherents of all of the world religions are legitimate responsesto the divine.
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This assumption is, of course, contestable, but I am willing to accept the version of the basic religious conviction that Hick assumes. Religious pluralism, then, is an attempt toexplain the three phenomena above. If the adherents of all of the world religions legitimatelyperceive the Divine Reality, then why are the world religions so different? We can understandHick’s answer to this question by first considering variances in ordinary sense perception.Hick relies on a basic model of cognitive psychology to explain the process of perception. This model is composed of three parts: sensation, organization, and awareness.
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Whenever we perceive an object in our experience, we perform these three steps (although wenormally experience them as a single, almost instantaneous occurrence). For example, when anindividual sees an orange, he will first experience the sensation of the visual stimuli produced bythe orange in the form of reflected light photons. Then, the individual will compartmentalize thatinformation using his previous experience of spherical objects, orange-colored objects, etc., sothat he can understand the orange in terms of the objects with which he is already familiar.Finally, he will be aware of the orange. The final stage of this process is the culmination of thefirst two.One noteworthy feature of this model is that while the stimuli sensed by two differentobservers may be the same, the awareness of an object may be completely different for twoobservers due to their different mental schemas. This feature is not hard to accept. Allow me togive another example. Suppose three different observers are asked to interpret the same object, apiece of Chinese calligraphy containing an antiquated Chinese character. One observer is anAmerican who cannot read any form of Chinese. Another observer is a Chinese college studentwho knows how to read modern Chinese. The last observer is a Chinese lexicographer who is anexpert on archaic Chinese literature. The first observer, the American, will likely respond to theobject as if were an item in a Rorschach inkblot test, or as if looking at the clouds or the stars andtrying to find the shape of recognizable figures, as children often do. The second observer, theChinese student, will likely respond by recognizing the radicals found in other Chinese symbolswith which he is familiar and arriving at a vague notion of what the symbol
might 
mean. Thethird observer, the Chinese lexicographer, is likely to be the least creative of the three. He willprobably see the symbol and instantly think of its meaning. The three observers were all giventhe same stimulus, but each came up with his own interpretation.At this point, Hick's religious pluralism begins to come into focus. If human beingsinterpret very simple objects differently, particularly if they are from different culturalbackgrounds, how much more might their interpretations of the Divine Reality vary? For humansare merely finite creatures with extraordinarily limited perceptual capacities. As such, it seemsimplausible to contend with any sort of confidence that the Divine Reality actually is what weperceive the Divine Reality to be. In Hick's words, our talk of the Divine Reality mustdistinguish between "God, and God as conceived and experienced by human beings."
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Hick softens the blow to those who enjoy a “personal relationship” with their loving Savior by listingmany examples in which scholars from all of the major religious traditions have assented to thisdistinction. I will not reproduce that list here, but suffice it to say that it is quite thorough. At anyrate, I will assume that Hick is right about the appropriateness of this distinction. When I refer tothe Divine Reality as it is, I will simply say "Divine Reality." When I refer to the Divine Realityas human beings experience it, I will say "images" of the Divine Reality.Hick attempts to make the idea of an image of the Divine Reality more clear to us by useof an analogy. He writes:
Consider a personage, X, who lived in the past and who is therefore not directly accessible tous, about whom certain salient facts are known but such that any concrete impression of X'scharacter leaves a good deal to the constructive imagination of the historian. Any suchimpression or, as I shall call it, image, represents an interpretation of the available data.Varying images of X may form in the minds of writers in different subsequent periods, withtheir different cultural backgrounds; and there may be both popular, often over-simplified,images and caricatures as well as more academic images. . . . In such cases the distinction

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