- Different Paths, Different Summits: A Model for Religious Pluralism
Those of us who believe that religious traditions are radically different from one another are divided between two camps. One camp holds that they are simply incommensurable. Participants in this camp often emphasize the decisive importance of language. They may argue that each language creates its own world within which every part of the symbolic system has its meaning in its relation to other parts of the system. Since language does not refer to a nonlinguistic reality, there is no possibility of translation among languages.
Some who recognize the possibility of translation for some parts of the linguistic systems still reject any such possibility in the sphere of religion. It is in this sphere that the denial that language has nonlinguistic reference is most firmly insisted upon. It is urged that each religious system is simply what it is.
The second group, the one to which I belong, holds that religious language does have referential character, and that dialogue, although complex and difficult, is possible and fruitful. But against those who hold that all religions are speaking, in their very diverse ways, of the same reality, we hold that the reality to which reference is made is multiple or diverse. It is our belief that the concrete and detailed study of religious experience and of the language through which it comes to expression enables us to distinguish these diverse references.
To the best of my knowledge, Stephen Kaplan has written the first book-length argument in favor of this view. He entitles it, quite appropriately, Different Paths, Different [End Page 367] Summits. The contrast, of course, is with the common image of different paths up a single mountain to the same summit.
Those of us who take this approach do not believe that every religious path leads to a different summit. Whether two paths lead to the same or different summits is to be decided on the basis of careful study of the traditions that follow these paths. Kaplan develops a threefold typology. One path is that of the theists, who seek communion with God. Another is that of Advaita Vedānta, which aims at final identity with the changeless real. A third is that of many forms of Buddhism, which seek to realize the wholly processive and interconnected character of all reality including the self.
Kaplan rightly emphasizes his agreement with those who stress the importance of language and culture in shaping religious experience as well as its articulation. He does not take this to mean that we cannot discern families of experience, such as the experiences of those who seek communion with God. The experiences of those with this goal in diverse traditions differ in their imagery. The language used to speak of the experience is that of a particular community. But the judgment that what constitutes experience in multiple communities is theistic reality fits many of them. There are thus several paths to the same summit. But not all religious paths are directed to this theistic summit.
Kaplan understands that a main objection to this radical religious pluralism is the deep-seated assumption that reality cannot have more than one fundamental character. If it is theistic, then the Hindu and Buddhist versions are in error. If either of them is correct, then all differing views are illusory. To adopt a radical pluralism is, then, in principle, to force a profound choice among religious traditions, holding that two out of three groups of traditions fail to provide paths up any mountain at all.
Kaplan responds to this objection thoughtfully and thoroughly. He finds in David Bohm's holographic model a clue to how three very different views of reality may all be justified by one reality. Bohm holds that the hologram illustrates and embodies the distinction between the implicate and the explicate orders. The implicate order is represented by the plate on which are inscribed the results of laser beams. When these are projected they give rise to an explicate order of...