Journal of the American Academy of Religion LX/4

A New Theory of Religions
Michael LaFargue

1 HIS PAPER TRIES to reconcile and integrate what have historically been two contrasting approaches to the academic study of religions. On the one side, there are those who take up the study of religions into the quest for religious truth. In their general spirit, these approaches are close to thinkers and "holy persons" within individual religions, who develop what are recognized as more ideal interpretations of their respective traditions Today, when there is widespread familiarity with many different traditions, sophisticated versions of this approach have been developed, in which the search for a more ideal interpretation becomes identified with a search to find the common core of various religions (as with John Hick), or in which one hopes to reach a better grasp of religious truth by means of dialogue between religions (as with W.C Smith) On the other side, there are those whose first concern is simply to gain an accurate understanding of the various religions of the world, whether this leads the researcher closer to religious truth or not Historically these approaches are connected to the growth of nineteenth-century Romanticism, with its interest in the unique spirit of each different culture and era Anthropological and sociological studies of religion (as in Geertz and Weber) are generally the clearest examples of this kind of approach today Both these approaches have weaknesses when used as bases for the academic study of religions. This paper takes as one starting point a dissatisfaction with the first kind of approach well expressed recently by Langdon Gilkey [The single "essence of religion" which this approach seeks] repreMichael LaFargue is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Massachusetts/Boston, Boston, MA 02125



journal of the American Academy of Religion

sents—try as it may to avoid it—a particular way of being religious. Thus it has to misinterpret every other tradition in order to incorporate them into its own scheme of understanding. In the end, therefore, it represents the same religious colonialism that Christianity used to practice so effectively, the interpretation of an alien viewpoint in terms of one's own religious center and so an incorporation of that viewpoint into our own system of understanding (35)'

Further theoretical reasons for rejecting this approach will be outlined toward the end of this article. The second approach mentioned, however, is also limited. One of its greatest limitations is that it lacks critical leverage It must confine itself to descnption, and hence accept at face value the interpretation of any given religion that happens to be most common among the members of that religion. This approach puts one in a position similar to a musical anthropologist who can't tell good !Kung music from bad !Kung music. Without the addition of a cntical element, the descriptive approach also tends to leave us implicitly operating out of a position of skeptical relativism when it comes to the substantive claims of religion 2 The present paper tries to provide some theoretical foundations for an approach to the study of religions that combines the strengths of each of these approaches. It is an approach that tnes to be both cntical and pluralist "Cntical" refers in this context to a cntique of substantive religious claims, a cntique of religion as religion. "Pluralist" refers to the fact that the theory itself does not rest on the assumption that ultimately religious truth is one. It leaves open the possibility that there may be a plurality of well-founded religions, which yet do not denve their well-foundedness from their relation to a common core The theory must be a critical theory without assuming absolutes And it must be a pluralist theory that is neither fideist nor relativist (in the usual sense of skeptical relativism). In a more general context, the ambition of my theory is to avoid the relativism which Allan Bloom's Closing of the American Mind nghtly decnes, without lapsing into the belief in particular absolutes which he implies is the only alternative. Cntical-plurahst theory in this sense seems at first sight implausible The construction of a rationally founded cntical pluralism requires a somewhat complex strategy, which I would like to outline in bnef here before proceeding to discussion of the details

'Gilkey is here criticizing the approaches of F Schuon, H Smith, W C Smith, John Hick, and Paul Knitter 2 See Gardiner on the historical relation between relativism and nineteenth-century culture study

LaFargue Radically Pluralist, Thoroughly Critical


(1) The "pluralism" in question assumes that religions are views about a single subject matter, but that different religious believers may have genuinely different but well-founded views on this subject matter. (As for example "geometry" is one subject matter, but there can be different well-founded geometnes, Euclidian, non-Euclidian, etc.) A simplified description of the common subject matter would be: Each religion presents us with something which it claims ought to be of overriding importance in life "Overriding" here needs to be understood in a purely descriptive way There is no strict line dividing this critical theory of religions from a general theory of value-based culture-cnticism, or from philosophical metaethics. (My argument is not part of a call for religious thinkers to unite against their common "secular" opponents.3 The theory is applicable to non-religious cultures, to secular liberalism, Marxism, feminism, etc) What is needed is a critique that derives from the nature of this kind of subject matter at the most general level The most general question is: What can serve as good evidence that something merits to be taken as a matter of overriding importance? (2) The emphasis of the theory is on the epistemology that derives from this particular subject matter in general, rather than on substantive doctrines, goals, or attitudes specific to some particular religion or religions. The theory can be most definitive when it is being negative, pointing out the way in which the epistemology of this subject matter is unlike the epistemology of other fields (logic, physics, psychology, sociology), and so pointing out those kinds of considerations that should not have any decisive weight in the evaluation of religions as such The theory makes room also for the development of positive cntena that might apply to several religions. But here it must be modest in its claims and leave room for constant revision Positive criteria can only be developed in the course of studying different specific religions, and one must always be prepared to come across a religion that is well-founded in a way that the theory has not yet anticipated. (3) The theory argues that one can consistently speak of reality-constraints on belief even if one does not think there is some uniquely structured reality that is the object of those beliefs, and so only one set of beliefs that is ultimately well-founded. A bnef discussion of the parallel situation in modem mathematics will illustrate this point. (4) In avoiding any appeal to universal truths, the theory straightforwardly abandons the position that religious beliefs aim to represent for
1 would generally side with Donald Weibe against Charles Davis in saying that the study of religion should not presume a "confessional" stance at the outset


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us reality as it exists apart from human consciousness, or that they are rooted in "necessary presuppositions" underlying all human experience. The objects of religious beliefs are objects located within reahty-as-experlenced, within the various Lebenswelten that constitute different cultural and religious worlds "Necessary presuppositions" have no privileged status or decisive weight in religious epistemology In order to escape skeptical relativism, I shall have to show that this position can be held while also holding that these beliefs can and ought to be subject to genuine reality constraints—they are not "free creations of the human mind." (5) The theory accepts the extension of Saussure's model of a differential system (a system of mutually defining elements) to all of experienced reality. This is a position it shares with many semioticians and structuralists. But it avoids the positing of universal truths by rejecting anything like Levi-Strauss' notion that all cultures are surface transformations of some deep structures underlying all cultures Each culture, and each religion, is a non-reduphcatable system of mutually defining elements. The meaning of each element in a given religion is determined exclusively by this relation to other elements in this same religion

(rather than also to some "universal" categones) Thus semiotics here provides an important descriptive and explanatory principle without serving any cntical function at all—1 e , without reducing different religions to a common core or deep structure that founds their validity (6) Finally, the theory avoids the skeptical relativism often associated with this non-universalist semiotics by incorporating as its central critical element a much broadened (non-Platonist) notion of "the good." I will use this term as a broad category of categories, which includes all possible kinds or aspects of reality that make a claim on us or give nse to obligations A religion is well-founded to the extent that it presents us with something which will stand up to questions about its goodness in this sense The vanously structured Lebenswelten of which various religious beliefs serve as foundations are well-founded to the extent that in them reality-as-expenenced is semiotically organized around concern for something very "good." An acceptance of semiotics means that good needs to be defined in relation to some specific cultural context rather than in terms of universal "absolutes " (But "contextually" does not mean instrumentally or functionally) This dissociates my theory from Platonist ideas usually conjured up by mentioning "the good." My primary point will be an epistemological one, the irreducible difference between the kind of evidence that could show that something makes a

LaFargue Radically Pluralist, Thoroughly Critical


valid claim on us, and the kind of evidence that shows logical necessity, physical causality, psychological influence, etc A common thread in this rather complex strategy is that it selectively borrows elements of vanous thought-traditions, while rejecting the foundationalism which has historically been an essential part of each. The foundations of my theory are complex, and omission of any one element would run it aground on the Scylla or Charybdis of absolutism or relativism. It is internally consistent, but it doesn't fit easily into one recognized philosophical tradition. It takes up elements of different traditions, while dissociating itself from other seemingly central aspects of these same traditions (The proposals were not initially developed as an exercise in theory, but in the course of close exegetical work with the texts of several religions.4) For this reason I will not be able fully to argue my case in this short space, and will have to proceed rather dogmatically in places. What I can hope to provide is only some bare outlines of a critical pluralist position that many would probably like to think possible, but about which most will be initially skeptical. REALITY-CONSTRAINTS IN THE ABSENCE OF SINGLENESS OF TRUTH: THE CASE OF MATHEMATICS5 Euclidian geometry once formed the paradigm of completely certain knowledge a single, unified system of theorems derived by indubitable logic from a small set of supposedly self-evident truths. The last two centunes have seen the gradual erosion of this faith in geometry, and in mathematics generally, as a single system of certain truths. Currently the very nature of mathematics seems to be a matter of some debate 6 Adopting a "worst case" scenano, let us suppose the following: Mathematics is not about the matenal world at all, but explores the logical properties of abstract objects. There can be abstract entities, and entire systems of mathematics, which have no application to the material world Further, the abstract entities mathematics investigates do not form a single internally unified and consistent set constituting "the
A hermeneuucs and exegetical practice connected with this theory are put forth in LaFargue (1985 1-9, 205-217, forthcoming) 5 The final chapter of Davis and Hersh's book ("True facts about imaginary objects") provided the initial inspiration for this section of my paper, though the point they make is slightly different from the one I'm making here 6 For a detailed account of the collapse of both certainty and unanimity in mathematics see especially Kline


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truth" of which all mathematical systems must give an account. All abstract entities exist relative to some system of logical terms and postulates. No single set of terms and postulates can claim to be more "selfevident" than the others, and none can claim to be clearly superior to all others in generating a mathematical system free of contradictions. Mathematics consists in arbitrarily positing vanous fundamental sets of axioms, without regard for their "true" or "self-evident" character, and exploring the properties of the vanous systems of theorems that can be generated by doing this The notion that even this kind of mathematics would be "nothing but a creation of the human mind" is an exaggeration. If something is completely a creation of the human mind, then there is nothing one can genuinely "discover," nothing to resist the mind's free decisions, nothing to be mistaken about But this would not be true even in the kind of completely "foundationless" and pluralist mathematics descnbed above First, not just any set of primitive terms and fundamental axioms will generate a consistent system of theorems. Moreover, to be logically interesting a system needs to "employ a comparatively economical set of primitive terms and axioms and select these so that an appropnately nch array of theorems can be deduced. . .If the axioms are too few. .then the theorems deducible. . .will be insufficient to make the system interesting. . .[But] a system that lacks economy cannot give us much insight into the logical connection of its sentences" (Barker:25) One cannot bring such systems into being by fiat. Some foundations will actually work, and some will not. Which ones will work better and which will work not so well is a matter of discovery, not free creation.7 Secondly, once primitive terms and fundamental axioms are chosen, which system of theorems follows from them, and what entities and operations have a valid existence in the system, are not matters that the creator of the system can freely decide (or even initially know about in very many cases). My conclusion and main point The questioning of singleness of
7 As Barker further remarks, "It would be too extreme to imagine that the mathematician is entirely free of restrictions Mathematicians are subject to the requirements of consistency, and cannot bring into being self-contradictions For example, suppose someone attempts to postulate the existence of an entity answering to the description 'A natural number which is the cardinal number of the set of natural numbers' It might at first sight appear that a mathematician could postulate such an entity if he likes Yet if someone tnes to join the assumption that there is such a thing to the normal axioms for the natural numbers, inconsistency results [The number invoked would have to be both finite and infinite I An attempted creative fiat like this would be unsuccessful at bringing us object into the world" (72-73)

LaFargue Radically Pluralist, Thoroughly Critical


truth in modem mathematics is not connected with a simple abandonment of the presentation of evidence and of critical argument and a reliance on pure creativity. On the contrary, if the picture of mathematics set out above has any plausibility, it is only because rigorous adherence to mathematical epistemology—to the reality-constraints proper to mathematical reasoning—may have itself turned out (contrary to the intentions of mathematicians) to undermine the belief in singleness of truth in this field.8 CATEGOREAL REGIONS Next, I want to propose a theory of "categoreal regions" to serve as a substitute for now widely questioned "metaphysical" theones about necessary, universally valid sets of categories and truths that would obtain in all possible worlds. There may be no "necessary" set of mathematical categories and fundamental axioms, but there are constraints on the contents of categories used in mathematics, deriving from the epistemology of mathematics and the realities with which it deals. Only categones with certain kinds of contents can be given meaning in mathematical thought, the kinds of content that can be made parts of some given mathematical system through adherence to the epistemology of mathematics This is what constitutes mathematics as a "categoreal region " There are also certain other reality-constraints operative in physics, and certain kinds of category-contents that are in accord with these constraints Insofar as the constraints and the correlative allowable category-contents are different in physics from what they are in pure mathematics, physics constitutes a separate "categoreal region." A category in physics has to be able to be operationalized in physical experiments that test the ability of theones to predict observable outcomes Categones become problematic in physics when they can't be so operationalized (For example, suppose that no observable outcomes of expenments can settle the question as to whether there are such things as "substances" distinct from properties. This would not show that substances don't exist, but it could eliminate this category from the categoreal region defined by the epistemology of physics.)
8 Georg Cantor's proof that infinite sets can vary in size is a case in point This counter-intuitive notion required genuine proof, not just free creation He had to show that one is not free to accept traditional mathematical postulates, and deny the existence of vanous-sized infinities See Kline (199-204), Wilder (111-148)


Journal of the American Academy of Religion

A key pnnciple related to this notion of categoreal regions is that the
character of the reality-constraints on categories and theories determines both their meaning and the valid range of their application. And conversely the intended meaning and the desired range of application of a theory determines the kind of reality-constraints to which it is subject. The "range of applica-

tion" of a theory has to do with questions about the valid conclusions one can draw from that theory: If we know that x theory is true, what else do we know? For example, if one wants to know truths about what causes what in the real world—if this is the desired "range of application" of one's theones—then one's categories and theories must be constrained by tests showing powers of predicting observable outcomes One must operate with the epistemology proper to physics rather than those proper to pure mathematics The modem formalization of mathematics has led to its independence from physics, but it has also destroyed the traditional assumption that mathematics shows us necessary truths about the physical world THE CATEGOREAL REGION OF PHAINOMENA My point so far is that, first, there are different categoreal regions, each defined by a particular epistemology and range of application proper to it. Secondly, the discussion of mathematics illustrates the possibility that within a given region there can be a cntical epistemology even in the absence of one uniquely true theory in that region To apply this theory to the study of religion, it is necessary to introduce a third categoreal region to which belong the objects of religious belief The region itself is very broad—I will call it the region of "phainomena" Greek for "appearances," from which the modem "phenomenology" denves. The world olphainomena is the world as delivered to us in involved human expenence, apart from any explicit conscious reflection on or specialized theoretical inquiry into such experience. By "expenence" here I intend the Erlebnis of continental philosophy (Gadamer:58-63), rather than the "sense impressions" of Bntish empincism. People "expenence" not only color, weight, smell, etc They also expenence love, insults, status, beauty, etc. The content of expenence includes not only objects and events; it also includes human meanings attached to them Speaking of phainomena as a special categoreal region means that cntical thought can take place that employs categones derived from human expenence taken in the broad sense just outlined We can and do make mistakes about phainomena To say that we can have cntical

LaFargue Radically Pluralist, Thoroughly Cntical


thought about phamomena as such is to say that cntical corrective thought can take place using categories derived from expenence We do not have to reformulate questions in some relatively specialized and restrictive set of categories in order to think critically about them. For instance, in order to discover whether we are "really depressed" or "really angry," we do not have to dismiss the meaning-content of "anger" delivered in our expenence (anger as a phainomenon) and formulate what "being angry" would mean in the categones offered by the science of neurobiology. Both anger and depression are phamomena, and we can think critically about which one is occurnng without going outside the categoreal region oi phainomena altogether For any given person, there is a world of interrelated and mutually defining phainomena that constitutes the basic honzon within which all experience takes place, and which determines the content of all particular experiences In the case of any given person, and for groups of people sharing a common way of expenencing things, this experienceworld (Lebenswelt) has a determinate character It is something that other people can be mistaken about—as frequently happens when a person from one culture misinterprets the statements and expenence of someone in another culture It is also possible to be mistaken about phainomena given in one's own expenence. There is a prereflective layer of expenence that a person's conscious thought and speech9 can fail to accurately represent (It is not, however, an uninterpreted layer of "raw data.") On this account cntical thought about phamomena must necessanly begin with a "hermeneutical" moment—a stnving to make explicit the implicit contents of one's own or of others' expenence in a way that remains as true as possible to the expenenced contents of these phainomena To this extent, the remarks above stand largely within the phenomenological tradition. One crucial place where I would differ, however, from Husserl's foundationalist phenomenology is my proposition that here again cntical thought can take place in the absence of singleness of truth The cntical thought about phainomena I have proposed so far does not have as its object finding some absolute grounding for the categories given in anyone's expenence in the form of Husserl's
'This differentiates the present theory from those theories of religion (such as Lindbeck's) which place all the emphasis on the way that the actual language religious people use shapes their experience, and so in some way becomes self-authenticating While not denying this, 1 think it is also important to point out the way in which "dead" religious language fails religiously because it fails to correspond to the shape of live expenence Thus religious language is not self-authenticating, but needs to reflect the shape of actual expenence, and can be cntically examined in this light


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hoped-for universal set of categones, which necessanly shape everyone's expenence at some deep level. The phainomena appeanng in any given person's expenence have a determinate character even in the absence of any such ground.10

"Religion" is a broad term, which can refer to concrete social groups and institutions, as well as to an ideal set of beliefs, expenences, attitudes, and practices It is religion in the latter aspect that I intend here as an object of cntical inquiry In this respect I take as a central given a certain "range of application" claimed for religious beliefs—namely their claim to descnbe what ought to be of ovemding importance in human life The question is then: What kinds of reality-constraints ought to govern our beliefs in this area? In the present view, the categoreal region involved here is included in the more general region of phainomena. Categones depicting ideals, obligations, importance, deserving, etc., are a subset of the set of possible categones describing the contents of reality-as-expenenced I will call the sub-region to which this kind of reality belongs the region of "the good." But this term needs immediately to be qualified here, especially to distinguish what I mean from the classical Platonist notion of the good I will use "the good" here as a most abstract logical category of categones, to refer to whatever deserves our respect or our service for what it is in itself One faces a dilemma in the formulation of a theory of the good at the necessary level of generality One needs a description narrow enough to distinguish the good from other kinds or aspects of reality. But it is important to define it otherwise in the broadest possible way, so as not to tie the theory down to one particular notion of the good (such as "the obligatory," "the deserving," "the meaningful," etc) Wittgenstein's strategy of providing a representative list is appropnate here, and one actual list he gave will do fairly well. We are dealing here with' "What is valuable . . . what is really important . . the meaning of life what makes life worth living . . . the nght way of living" (641). Adding a few more notions To show that something is "good," one

10 Calvin Schrag's Expenence and Being provides some important theoretical foundations for a nonfoundationahst phenomenology Ninian Smart's version of phenomenology, emphasizing the particularity of different religious traditions (see esp 49-73), also tends toward pluralism, in contrast to Husserl

LaFargue Radically Pluralist, Thoroughly Critical


would have to show that it can be grounds for respect or admiration, for an obligation we have toward another, or valid grounds for being proud of ourselves. Religious/ethical categories depict some realities or ideals that "make a claim" on us. It is true there are a great variety of realities and ideals that might make a claim on us But it is not true that just anything can justifiably be regarded as making a claim on us There is a certain way in which reality does constrain our beliefs about what we ought to do with our lives, and such constraints can exist in the absence of singleness of truth in this area. To illustrate this point, consider the proposal of Anytus in Plato's Meno (71e). (I offer this philosophical example only because of its simplicity and brevity. It does not exemplify the more complex treatment generally necessary for religions.) Anytus wants to define virtue {arete) in such a way that actual political success in governing is its prime constituent. But if Anytus wants to use arete as a validating concept, such that one will be able to say that if so-and-so has arete he has a genuine claim on our respect, then this places a constraint on the content of the concept itself. In this case Anytus' concept can be criticized by simply pointing out that a malicious tyrant might achieve actual political success by force, without truly deserving anyone's respect If validation of someone's claim to respect is to be included in the range of application of a concept, then there are certain constraints on the formation of the concept In considenng what such constraints might be, one might be able to amve at some modest generalizations that are useful in the cntique of other cases But one must avoid claiming any special "necessary" status for such generalizations, or assuming that all valid generalizations must be connected to some single set of correct concepts. Especially when they are cast in positive terms, they are most safely regarded as provisional inductive generalizations, which depend for their validity on intuitions about concrete cases.11 To say that religions need to be grounded in something "good" is not to say that religion can be "reduced to ethics"—especially if this is

"Many will object thai moral intuitions are unreliable, and none has any validity unless it implicitly appeals to some necessary and universal "first principle" that has us justification in itself, and can found the validity of the intuition But it has proved to be at least as difficult to find a selfevident "necessary first principle" as it is to find relatively non-controversial intuitions about some concrete cases The present theory shares John Rawls' general strategy (46-53) of solving this problem by proposing a more dialectical relation between concrete intuitions and general principles


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taken to mean that there is some single system of ethical principles in the light of which religions ought to be evaluated. Religions and systems of philosophical ethics (like different systems of geometry) are different systems of categones occupying the same categoreal region. But to place the crucial objects of religious belief in the region of the good is to insist that beliefs about what we ought to do with our lives cannot be grounded in some realities lying outside the region of the good. The "necessity" we are under to anything that makes a claim on us is suigenens It cannot be reduced to physical/causal necessity, nor to logical or "metaphysical" necessity 12 The only crucial consequence of failing in the respect we owe to the good as such is being in the wrong. The grounds of religious beliefs can be "transcendent" in the sense that they make claims that go far beyond relatively mediocre conventional ("worldly") conceptions of the good. Contrary to metaphysically-tinged religious apologetics, they cannot "transcend" the region of the good itself (and the overarching region of phainomena) without ceasing to make a claim on us. This theory of the good leads to a criticism of certain mistakes that religious people sometimes make in the connections they suppose to exist between different facets of their beliefs, and in the conclusions they draw from their beliefs For example, many Christians suppose that the authority of God—the valid claims he has on human obedience—rests on his physical power and the fact that he created the world Correlatively, they think they can know "by faith," apart from any scientific evidence, that such a physically powerful being exists From the point of view of the present proposals, both these assumptions are false On the first point, imagine a science-fiction scenano A world of people has been created by an all-powerful but malicious being, whose purpose in creating this world and its people was to see people torture each other It would be at the very least problematic for the people in such a world to take this being's purposes as authontative for their lives Physical power, even on the largest imaginable scale, is simply not a good ground for claims someone might make on our respect or service. On the second point, we have to ask about the grounds of Chnstian beliefs about God's causal power—whether these beliefs have been sub12 This is how 1 would translate, and accord partial validity to, Kierkegaard's insistence in the Postscript on existential decision vs reliance on what he calls "objectivity " 1 would of course not agree with him that such decisions are based literally on "uncertainty," in the sense that one cannot reflect on them and give supportive reasons for them

LaFargue Radically Pluralist, Thoroughly Critical


ject to those kinds of reality-constraints that would entitle us to draw conclusions from them about what causes what in the universe. "Faith," I take it, is generally a response to an experience of being religiously moved by something (reading religious writing, undergoing some moving experience or witnessing some moving event, etc.). Insofar as such experiences can claim to be experiences of something that makes a very strong claim on us (something very "good"), they can be very good grounds for knowing what we ought to do with our lives. But can they serve as good grounds for knowing about the causal interactions that brought our present physical world into existence7 Clearly not. There are certain kinds of constraints on beliefs from which one wants to draw conclusions of this kind These are constraints of the sort commonly used in astrophysics We have no good reason to suppose that experience of the good gives one any privileged information about physical causes in the world Following the above definition of "faith," then, one would have to say that religious faith as such, like pure mathematics, must give up its claim to give knowledge about what causes what in the physical world.13 The present proposals rest on a radically expenential theory of religion Knowing that Chnstian salvation is the one thing necessary, or that Buddhist Enlightenment is the one thing necessary, is ultimately a matter of experiencing the overwhelming importance of one or the other of these One who doesn't experience this can be "converted" to experiencing things this way But genuine conversion is a thoroughgoing personal change effected by a concrete encounter with something overwhelmingly good that one expenences as such—not through intellectual proof and consciously controlled choice. Such personal conversion is subject to criticism A person can critically examine her experience of the overwhelming importance of salvation or enlightenment and discover that the conclusion about overriding importance is ill-founded, that what motivates it is not something truly "good" (e g that it only represents a flight from the psychological discomfort of anomie) But cntical reason ought to come as a second-order cntique of

13 This includes claims to know, purely on the basis of religious experience itself, that this experience "eludes natural explanation," and must be due to a supernatural "cause " Many believers do of course in fact regard such claims as both warranted by religious experience, and warranting the importance of what is given in these expenences On the present theory, neither of these impressions is valid, if one takes "cause" in the usual sense it is given in modern science This is why Proudfoot seems to me mistaken in emphasizing the issue of the causal explanation of religious expenences as central to any test of their validity (209-221) This is connected with his advocacy of a causal theory of perception (177), with which I would also disagree


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expenence, capable of falsifying the deliverances of expenence, not as first-order discovery establishing the one true set of beliefs to which all must adhere no matter what their expenence THE OBJECTIVITY OF PHAINOMENA The world-as-expenenced is clearly a world that is organized in the process of perceiving it, and this organization cannot be regarded as a property of things as they are apart from human consciousness The most common interpretation of this situation is to say that the mind at least partially "creates" the world that it perceives. Thinkers of a positivist bent typically take this to mean that what the mind adds to reality is not really there and does not deserve senous attention Others in the "idealist" tradition, like Hegel, Cassirer, and Sartre, exalt the "creative spirit" of man that does the organizing of the world and urge us to still greater "creative" activity In either interpretation, the idea that phainomena are a creation of the human mind creates a major problem for a theory of religion that founds religion on phainomena of any kind It makes religion sound like the rules of football If they have their origin in the mind, how can they make senous claims on this mind? They only have whatever "authonty" the mind wants to give them, and it can withdraw this authonty in the same way we withdraw from a football game. In answer to this senous objection to my theory, I would like to borrow an argument from Henry Allison (14-34), in a recent reinterpretation and defense of Kant's position vis-a-vis Berkeley 14 (It is important to distinguish my proposals from Kant's position in other respects, particularly from other attempts that have been made to defend religion on Kantian grounds ) In Allison's view, Kant's objection to Berkeley is essentially that Berkeley's idealism was not radical enough It takes as its starting point the fundamental difference that we experience between two categories, "the human mind" and "the external world." It is a theory about their relationship, saying that the latter really exists only "inside" the former. What is needed is a theory that situates more radically the very distinction between the human mind and the external world One needs to realize that both of these categones, the external world and the mind, are already "appearances " The mind we perceive our14

Hilary Putnam's interpretation of Kant is also very close to the position taken in this section

LaFargue Radically Pluralist, Thoroughly Critical


selves as having is itself already part of "reality as perceived by human consciousness," not "reality as it is in itself" In this view, the difficulty with Berkeley's theory is not so much that it doubts the real existence of the external world, but that it is overconfident in according a "more real" status to the perceiving human mind. This same point can be stated in different terms as a distinction between two senses of the word "objective " In one sense of the word, "objective" refers to the world perceived as "out there," in contrast to the "subjective" reality of internal ideas, feelings, etc., perceived as "in here " In another sense, "objective" refers to reality as it is in itself, entirely apart from the way it appears in human cognition It is a mistake to conflate these two senses of the word "objective" and assume that trying to understand the "objective reality" that we are confronted with in our ordinary lives is the same thing as trying to find out what reality is like apart from human cognition. Science has brought about an awareness that many of the kinds of things that appear to be out there cannot be verified as properties of things as they are in themselves Should we conclude from this that we are mistaken about their "objectivity" in the first sense? This would be a mistaken conflation of two different senses of "objective," which need to be kept separate. In a world consisting of phainomena already structurally differentiated into "subjective" mental reality (a "self"), and an "objective" reality which this self encounters, it is inaccurate to think of the latter as a product of the former, to think of the reality objectively encountered as a creation of the human self The human self is itself a phenomenon, whose perceptual content is largely defined relationally vis-a-vis other phainomena that it encounters "in the world." There is no warrant for a wholesale removal of all reality from one group of phainomena (appeanng in the external world) and its placement in another phainomenon (the mind) There are of course specific cases, like hallucinations, in which experience itself gives us reason for doubt But to say that phainomena as a whole are not real would be to say that "the world," in the sense we normally use that word, is not real This is partially a verbal poinr so far as actual knowledge goes, "reality as it exists apart from consciousness" is an empty category Nothing we can know belongs in this category Those things which belong to reahty-as-expenenced are both the ordinary and the only knowable referents for the term "reality." But the point is also a substantive one in the present context The empirical "I" facing a world in which certain things make an authontative claim on it did not itself create the basis for these claims These claims do not have


Journal of the American Academy of Religion

the same status as the things which it can see itself creating, like the rules of football There is a sense in which this "real world" is partly constituted by an expenencing consciousness, which is not merely passive in us experience. If there were no human consciousness the "real world" that actually appears in our expenence would not exist (It might be proper to say that there would still be some existent world, but we could not imagine it—to do so would be to bring it into the region of phainomena ) But the "human consciousness" spoken of here is not the same as the phenomenal self The phenomenal self creates the rules of football, and it has a choice whether to do so or not do so, to formulate them in one way or another way, to play or not to play football The "human consciousness" that is partially responsible for the constitution of the world of phainomena is not like this It has done its work before "I" (the phenomenal mind) come on the scene. "I" arrive on the scene always already too late to regard myself as the one who creates the scene.15 Following this argument, my thesis about the good as a sub-region of phainomena can be formulated as follows: Contrary to Kant, there are no particular categones concerning the good that are a given and necessary part of reality for us. But there is something necessanly given about the region of the good: what is a given is the fact that our own being, and the external reality we expenence, have a dimension of good/not-good. Take for example the question of "life's meaning." The word "meaning" can refer simply to the fact that some proposition makes sense in some consistent scheme of concepts But to say that there are facts in the world having "meaning" in this sense is not yet to say that the world is a "meaningful" place to live in the more ordinary sense of that word. To say that "life is meaningful/meaningless" is to make a statement about "the good" in life. A meaningful world "deserves" our participation, it "makes life worth living." A meaningless world does not. The present proposals do not assert that the world is meaningful in some particular way, or even that it is meaningful rather than meaningless "Meamnglessness" is negative meaning. It is a category still belonging to the categoreal region of the good What is given as part of
15 This can be regarded as an interpretation of Kant's distinction between the "transcendental ego " and the "empirical ego" (Kant 253-58) But this interpretation must be distinguished from the one that stems from the "Romantic" interpreters of Kant (see Korf) To make the transcendental ego part of a worldview, as they did, is in my terms to bring it into the world of phainomena, erasing the fundamental distinction

LaFargue Radically Pluralist, Thoroughly Critical


the phenomenal world is simply that this world has a dimension meaningful/meaningless It is possible for the world to be genuinely meaningful, or meaningless, in different ways for different people. What is not possible is that a human being experience the world in a way that is completely neutral in respect to meaningfulness, in which the dimension meaningful/meaningless is completely absent. The meaningfulness of the world is something that one can be mistaken about. One can for example hold onto the idea that the world is meaningful simply out of fear of entertaining the opposite view. One can mistake a feeling of mere pleasantness for a perception of genuine meaning Conversely, a person could be attracted to the view that the world is meaningless out of mere egocentric resentment that she has not been given a more important place in the scheme of things. These kinds of considerations make for "ill-founded" views about the question of the world's meaningfulness. But, since meaningfulness is a category belonging to the general categoreal region oiphainomena, one cannot go outside one's experience to try to correct one's mistakes. One can only base such corrections on appeals to other experienced phainomena. RELIGIONS AS DIFFERENTIAL SYSTEMS Religions are ways of organizing the world meaning-wise The pluralist theory argued here holds that different religions constitute irreducibly different ways of organizing the world, genuinely different ultimate accounts of "the meaning of life," which assign different meanings to life expenences and actions. The formal model that is best able to make explicit the meaning-structure of such different Lebenswelten is Saussure's model (99-120) of a "differential system " The charactenstic of a differential system is that all of its elements are mutually defining No single elements have their meaning completely in themselves, so that they can serve as self-contained foundations for the meaning of other elements. A differential system has the circular structure of a dictionary, in which each word is defined by other words, in a circle with no end. A painting is another example of a differential system' the aesthetic value of each element depends on its relation to all the other elements in the same painting. Religions are also best regarded as "differential systems," each element of which gets us essential meaning from its relation to other elements of the respective system The "God" Paul believes in gets his essential meaning from his relation to other key Pauline concepts and experiences sin and fallenness, faith, salvation by Chnst's crucifixion


Journal of the American Academy of Religion

and resurrection, the contrast with salvation by works, etc.—and from his relation to the rest of Paul's culture and worldview. The meaning of Nirvana in the Pah Canon needs to be analyzed similarly, in relation to other Buddhist concepts and themes in these writings, and to the culture from which they stem The reason that "God" and "Nirvana" have to be regarded as irreducibly different realities is that they belong to separate differential systems. (To be consistent, one must also say that the God of Paul and the God of Aquinas are irreducibly different realities, for the same reason.) Giving full weight to the differential-system model means regarding differential definitions as the only crucial and essential determinants of the meaning of the elements of a given religion. This last point also distances my theory from the ambition of many structuralists and semiotic theonsts who have taken up Saussure's model. Their ambition has been to construct a semiotic theory that will be like theory in physics, having a single set of categones in terms of which all cultures and cultural phenomena can be analyzed This is in conflict with the way I would apply Saussure's model In this view, the only important directive of Saussure's model is the general one that the meaning of any given element in a religion needs to be understood by considering its relation to other elements of this same religion. These are the only relationships that are essential. Every differential system is irreducibly different from every other one, so the validity of a universal set of categones for analyzing them all is always questionable.16 This appropnation of Saussure's model implies a contextual notion of the good. "Good" is a property of systems, or of elements considered within systems, never of any given element considered outside the system that gives it its meaning and therefore its goodness But here one must be careful to distinguish a semiotic (differential) system from a causal system To illustrate by analogy: A machine is a causal system in which parts physically interact to produce something outside themselves. Each part has an instrumental value in producing this extnnsic

16 Though semiotics is commonly associated with the ambition to find universals, many theonsts in this tradition are critical of it on precisely this point See for example Demda's criticism of LeviStrauss (discussed in LaFargue 1988) Umberto Eco also questions the thesis of a universal "Global Semantic System" (83-84, 93-95, 100, 112) Note that this would greatly reduce the supposed opposition between the hermeneutic and semiotic traditions Semiotic analysis of someone else's religion would no longer necessarily be a substitute for empathic verstehen It would rather be a means of making explicit the meaning-structure of that religion, which empathic understanding grasps in an implicit way Geertz, another semiotic theonst cntical of cultural universals, seems to agree here "The whole point of a semiotic approach to culture is to aid us in gaining access to the conceptual world in which our subjects live so that we can, in some extended sense converse with them" (24)

LaFargue Radically Pluralist, Thoroughly Critical


effect. A painting is by contrast a semiotic system. The meanings of its vanous elements are contextually defined in relation to each other But they don't interact causally as instruments to produce something different from themselves. What the elements of a painting "produce" is a structured semiotic system made up of these same elements. When categories related to "the good" are defined in relation to semiotic systems rather than functional systems, this allows for a different sense to be given to the phrase "good in itself" It allows for something to be "good in itself," in the sense that it is not instrumentally good for something else, and yet not "good in itself" in the sense that it is good in all (semiotically construed) contexts Thus while the claim which "God" and "Nirvana" have to overriding importance is contextually dependent, it is still possible for believers to entrust themselves to God, or strive for Nirvana as a response to claims made by some realities "good in themsleves," not as an instrumental "means" to achieving something desirable on other grounds. This is not to deny that individuals and groups do very often use religion primarily as an instrument to "fulfill certain needs" that they have (for comfort, social cohesion, etc.) This may in fact be true in most cases of what people call "religion," but this instrumental use of religion is not the ideal case. Deciding what the ideal case should consist in is one of the chief goals of the religious cntique of religions I am advocating here. When people effectively treat religion as a means to something else, they are not regarding it as something of overriding importance (One proper response in this case would be to turn to a critical consideration of what is actually of overriding importance for them, to examine whether it deserves this status.) What religiosity amounts to in the ideal case can be descnbed as follows Religions as differential systems are not just collections of elements, but structured arrangements of these elements. Any given group of elements can be structured in several different ways, and this will give rise to separate differential systems, because the relations between elements, and the way they mutually define each other's meaning, will be different The semiotic organization of any given person's Lebenswelt is influenced very greatly by her dominant interests and concerns. In the present view, a particular person's religious views are well-founded to the extent that they represent an organization of the world that results from an overriding concern for something very good Genuine religious "conversion" (whether sudden or gradual) always consists in a markedly increased turning toward something good When religious beliefs


Journal of the American Academy of Religion

have indeed been molded by concerns other than the concern for the good, this is to be accounted a defect in them, grounds for just cnticism At this point one can see how the cntique of religions suggested here is similar to the internal cntiques conducted by religiously advanced members within each religious tradition That is, the critique which these proposals envisage, like that of more idealistic members of each religion, would tend toward an ideal interpretation of a given religion A Buddhist who construes the karma-reincarnation idea as an invitation to stnve for personal rewards in the next life has a perspective dominated by pursuit of self-interest rather than concern for something that makes a claim on us, and this interpretation of Buddhism deserves religious cnticism on these grounds (as it is actually cnticized in early Buddhist wntings [Homer: 320]). The same is true of a Chnstian who construes Chnstian afterlife-beliefs as an invitation to bargain with God Such belief would remain religiously defective even if one could show that there is an all-powerful being with whom one could bargain about afterlife rewards (Self-interested reward-seeking is not of course in all cases wrong, but it is something totally different from placing ourselves in service to something that makes a valid claim on us) This is the sense in which there are reality-constraints that ought to govern the contents of one's beliefs about God, Tao, Brahman, Nirvana, etc That is, when taken together with some entire system of Chnstian beliefs, the meaning that "God" has in the context of this system must be such as to represent something very "good" and deserving of singlehearted devotion. Cnticized by this standard, some conceptions of God can fare much better than others, and some can be completely discredited as the basis for a valid religion On the other hand there might be several different concepts of God that fare more or less equally well, especially when the way one construes the remainder of Chnstian beliefs are also altered, as has actually happened frequently in the history of Chnstian (and Muslim, and Jewish) belief Similar things can be said of Tao, Brahman, etc. There are fairly clear negative cntena by which certain religious conceptions can be ruled out Positive critena vary between religions, and can only be fully developed by studying any given religion as a total "system" (hence the difficulty of treating this topic adequately in this paper) "God" represents a different kind of good than "Nirvana," and the ideal relation in which the respective Chnstian and Buddhist believers stands to these two realities is also quite different (Smarr68-69) Hence the grounds on which God and Nirvana might be shown to represent something "good" might differ. The theory thus allows for the

LaFargue Radically Pluralist, Thoroughly Critical


development of internal cntena for criticism proper to each religion, while not accepting just any cntena some religious people might want to use. In this view "God," "Nirvana," "Tao," etc. have irreducibly different meanings These are not meanings possessed by realities (or a single reality) that can be defined apart from the meanings These meanings are the foundation of the valid claims made by these realities on the devotion of believers To this extent they, are constitutive of the being of God, Nirvana, and Tao as objects deserving religious commitment. This theory displaces the emphasis religious apologetics has tended to place on supenor religious certainty about ultimate norms, and replaces it with an emphasis on the superlative "goodness" which these realities represent for the ideal believer. For formal analysis, these realities do not have a logically foundational status similar to the axioms of Euclid's geometry. They have a formal status more similar to aesthetic categones like the "climax" of a musical piece or the "centerpiece" of a well-decorated room.17 Tao, Brahman, and God can potentially be as much a part of reality as the rest of the world people encounter in everyday life The theory proposed here would allow their actual reality to be cntically substantiated only in concrete cases for specific individuals, and for groups sharing a common expenence

17 This is the kind of observation for which I would claim a modest generality rather than universality Heunstically useful in the analysis of some religions, it implies no deficiency in those worldviews without strong single "centers," such as polytheistic religions or early Confucianism, to which it would not apply


Journal of the American Academy of Religion

Allison, Henry E Kant's Transcendental Idealism An Interpretation and De1983 fense New Haven Yale University Press Barker, Stephen F 1964 Bloom, Allen 1987 Davis, Charles 1975 1984 Davis, Philip J , and Reuben Hersh 1981 Dernda, Jacques 1972 The Philosophy of Mathematics Englewood Cliffs, N J Prentice-Hall The Closing of the American Mind New York Simon and Schuster "The Reconvergence of Theology and Religious Studles " Saences Rehgieuses/Studies in Religion 4 205-21 "Wherein there is no ecstasy" Saences Rehgieuses/Studies in Religion 13/4.393-400 The Mathematical Experience Boston flin Houghton Mif-

"Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences " In The Structuralist Controversy The Languages of Criticism and the Saences of Man Ed by R Macksey and E Donato Baltimore Johns Hopkins University Press A Theory of Semiotics Bloomington Indiana University Press. Truth and Method New York Crossroad

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Hick, John 1980 Kant, Immanuel 1966 Kierkegaard, Stfren 1941 Korff, H A 1966 LaFargue, Michael 1985 1988 Forthcoming Lindbeck, George 1984 Proudfoot, Wayne 1985 Putnam, Hilary 1987 Rawls, John 1971 Saussure, Ferdinand de 1972 Schrag, Calvin O 1969 Smith, Wilfred Cantwell 1981

God Has Many Names. Philadelphia Press


Critique of Pure Reason. Trans by F Max Miiller New York Doubleday Kierkegaard's Concluding Unscientific Postscript Trans by David F Swenson. Pnnceton. Princeton University Press "Kant Romanticized by Fichte " In The Romantic Movement, 107-112 Ed by A K Thorlby London. Longmans, Green & Co Language and Gnosis The Opening Scenes of the Acts of Thomas. Harvard Dissertations in Religion, No 18 Philadelphia Fortress Press "Dernda, Barth, and the Role of the Biblical Scholar " Harvard Theological Review 81/3:341-57. Tao and Method A Reasoned Approach to the Tao Te Ching Albany State University of New York Press The Nature of Doctrine, Religion and Theology in a Posthberal Age. Philadelphia Westminster Press Religious Experience Berkeley University of California Press The Many Faces of Realism LaSalle Open Court A Theory of Justice Harvard Press Cambndge University

Course in General Linguistics LaSalle Open Court

Experience and Being Prolegomena to a Future Ontology Evanston 1 1 Northwestern University Press 1 Towards a World Theology Faith and the Comparative History of Religion Philadelphia Westminster Press

Smart, Ninian 1973

Journal of the American Academy of Religion The Saence of Religion and the Soaology of Knowledge Some Methodological Questions New Jersey Pnnceton University Press "The failure of nerve in the academic study of religion " Saences Religieuses/Studies in Religion 13/4 401-22 Evolution of Mathematical Concepts An Elementary Study New York & London John Wiley "Lecture on Ethics " In The Enduring Questions Main Problems of Philosophy Ed by Melvin Rader N Y Holt, Rinehart and Winston (repnnted from Philosophical Review [1965] 3-12)

Weibe, Donald 1984 Wilder, Raymond L 1968 Wittgenstein, Ludwig 1976

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