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  • Pluralism: The Future of Religion by Kenneth Rose
  • Demian Wheeler
Pluralism: The Future of Religion. Kenneth Rose. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013. x + 190 pp., with bibliography and index. $110 cloth.

Kenneth Rose's Pluralism: The Future of Religion is one of the most important works to appear in the theology of religions in nearly two decades. Evocatively written, rhetorically effective, deftly argued, remarkably lucid, theologically nuanced, and even spiritually discerning, the book launches a full-scale attack [End Page 238] on exclusivistic and inclusivistic versions of "particularism," the view that one particular religion is absolute, universal, unsurpassable, and superior to all the others. Against both exclusivism and inclusivism, Rose builds a fresh and vigorous case for pluralism (or "nonparticularism"), which "holds that no contextually shaped body of religious teachings can justify a claim that it is final, normative, and universally binding" (8).

The importance of this monograph lies chiefly in its timeliness. As Rose himself ruefully notes, after a potentially momentous shift to a pluralist perspective in the 1970s and 1980s (what leading pluralists describe as "a crossing of a theological Rubicon"), the field has recently dead-ended in new iterations of antipluralism (see chapters 1 and 2). The resurgence of antipluralist models has largely come about as a result of a caricature of the pluralistic outlook. A number of influential particularist theologians (e.g., Gavin D'Costa, S. Mark Heim, and Aimee Upjohn Light, among others) have made a virtual pastime out of calling pluralists liberal imperialists or closet exclusivists, chiding them for presuming the finality of pluralism and, in so doing, ironically perpetuating "the same kind of exclusivistic thinking they reject in others" (25). According to Rose, such "clever moves" misconstrue the pluralistic hypothesis as a "firstorder" or "substantive" stance, when in actual fact, it is primarily a "secondorder" or "nonsubstantive" activity of purifying theological constructions and cataphatic discourses. That is, what D'Costa, Heim, Light, and their ilk fail to grasp is that pluralism, similar to the Mahāyāna notion of śūnyatā and the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim practice of negative theology, is a fundamentally critical and apophatic enterprise, underscoring the inability of human language to generate an unsurpassable, definitive body of teachings about ultimate reality and undercutting "inclusivistic illusions" about the absoluteness and universality of any religious doctrine, narrative, or tradition (3–4, 25–26). Be that as it may, the parody of pluralism as covert triumphalism or "crypto-exclusivism," however problematic, has allowed inclusivism to once again establish itself as "the default position in the theology of religions." This has "given cover" to renewed forms of religious absolutism, "block[ing] the inevitable movement of … Christian theologies toward embracing as a settled truth the nonabsoluteness of Christianity and of all other religions" (45).

Rose sets out to halt (or at least decelerate) this unfortunate and misguided regression back to inclusivism and exclusivism, offering an original and cogent defense of the pluralistic hypothesis. His thesis is revealed in the book's title: pluralism is the future of religion. That is, "the call to move forward into a more promising, religiously pluralist future is not merely a vain hope but an unavoidable step" (1). Put even more aggressively, religious pluralism is, and will forever be, "the only final truth in the theology of religions" and the sole [End Page 239] responsible starting point for "comparative thought about religion" (68, 1). This bold, and boldly refreshing, claim is supported by three main arguments.

First, the irrevocable law of historical flux guarantees that pluralism is religion's future (see especially chapter 3). Religions, not unlike cultures and biological species, are temporal and transitory, evolving through history and eventually disappearing in the relentless flow of time. And because no religion can "long remain in its current form" or hold out "against change and decay forever," declarations of finality and universality are unjustifiable, Rose insists (2, 5, 68).

"Departicularization" is the neologistic term Rose assigns to the mechanism whereby presently "dominant religions … fade away or slowly morph into their successors" (2). Actually, the departicularizing of a religion—its alteration and eventual mutation or extinction—is the last phase of the much larger phenomenon of syncretism (see chapter 4...


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