Pluralism: The Future of Religion by Kenneth Rose
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). On Rose's reading, the "syncretistic process of creativity and destruction" is neither an anomaly nor a sign of faithlessness and contamination but is "the natural state of human religiosity" (81, 74). Generally, syncretism begins with multiple religious belonging, which then gives rise to new religions. These traditions are, in turn, eventually transfigured, absorbed, or dismantled (in a word, departicularized) by the novel religious configurations that syncretize them. Rose regards this ongoing syncretistic activity as "pluralism in action," demonstrating that no community or set of religious teachings "can preserve itself from inevitable supersession by the unpredictable religious forms arising now and in the future" (81). Just as past heritages underwent adaptation or died out as innovators synthesized "formerly unrelated religious elements into new, hybrid expressions" (9), so too will existing religions someday vanish from the scene as they are replaced by or mutate into their newly syncretized descendants. And if, given enough time, every religion will be modified and surpassed, then exclusivistic retreats and inclusivistic overextensions are futile, last-ditch efforts to evade "the truth of pluralism" and to save our faiths from the inexorable "transformations and dissolution of departicularization" (3, 13).
Second, the finitude, historicity, and inherent limitations of linguistic utterance (and human cognition in general) ensures that no faith "will be able to install itself as the one, true religion for all of humanity," thereby sponsoring the plurality of religions both now and into the future (4, 145). In this connection, Rose, together with John Hick and mystics and negative theologians and philosophers of numerous traditions, contends that the pluralist vision is apophatically refracted, undergirded by "a lively sense of the ineffable but vital character of whatever is ultimately real" (6). An "apophatic pluralism" stipulates that verbal and doctrinal formulas, as products of finite human [End Page 240] history, are incapable of fully capturing the mysterious depths of reality. And precisely for that reason, no "body of teachings about the nature of being" can be declared "final or irreplaceable" (25). Quite the contrary, the critical negation and "unsaying" continually wrought by apophasis emasculates any and all absolutist fantasies about "the epistemic prowess, normativity, and ultimacy" of a religion, making the indefinite succession of "new cataphatic quests for ultimate meaning" inescapable (4, 6). In brief, apophaticism and pluralism necessarily imply one another. Because the ultimate "eludes the power of language to express it exhaustively and definitively," the manyness, diversity, and transience of religions follow as a matter of both "simple logic" and "historical fact" (25-26). And, conversely, the sheer variability and impermanence of humanity's faiths signal that religion attempts to poetically name that which is finally unnamable (30).
Third, pluralism is the future of religion for the simple reason that particularism, whether exclusivistically or inclusivistically inflected, cannot be. Since there is no "generally accepted, nontradition-specific method" of establishing which religion is the singularly or ultimately true one, no individual tradition, no matter how absolute it may seem to its convinced practitioners, will ever be able to "secure for itself universal assent that it is final and normative for all of humanity" (26, 2). For starters, exclusivist appeals to unique divine revelation or the "internal certainty" of a particular set of beliefs are undermined by parallel avowals in rival religions (31). And an inclusivist "offer by one tradition to fulfill another" will never be consented to by the adherents of the other tradition but will "more likely … be met with a similar counteroffer," resulting in "an unavoidable stalemate where apologists for competing absolutes meet in conflict and contradiction" (54, 66). In short, Rose realizes that "religious exclusivism and inclusivism reduce to incoherence just as soon as more than one tradition makes exclusivistic or inclusivistic claims" (147). Worse, because absolutisms become incoherent and implausible when "multiplied beyond one absolutist religious movement," the devotees of those movements tend to double down on "inadequate or indefensible measures, including custom, nostalgia, narrowly interpreted religious experience, fideism, authority, fundamentalism, or, in the worst instances, force" (66).
In order to substantiate the unsurpassability, universality, and culminating fullness of this or that religion, inclusivist theologies of religions, in particular, rely on what Rose refers to as "ad hoc and ex post facto interpretive strategies" (or what Hick once dubbed "epicycles"), which stretch the hermeneutical resources of a home tradition to take account of religious others from within its own conceptual, narratival, theological, or soteriological horizon (5, 10). By Rose's reckoning, such "makeshift devices" (e.g., the countless efforts [End Page 241] to include non-Christians within "the economy of Christian salvation") are "obscurantistic," "self-serving," "improbable," "unverifiable," and "ultimately unworkable," remaining persuasive to the already persuaded but unpersuasive to the unpersuaded (5, 10, 26, 51, 56). However ingenious and self-evident an "epicyclic adaptation" is to current apologists of the home tradition, members of the target tradition(s) will tend "to be amused or appalled by its implausibility" (46, 52). In time, it will seem contrived, farfetched, and odious, not just "to those who are not predisposed to accept it," but even to the very community for which it was created (142, 10). Thus, inclusivism is really a "temporary refuge," a "stopgap measure that is the last but weakest defense against the inevitability of pluralism" (3, 52). Rose inveighs that even the new-fangled inclusivisms of today's particularist theologians, while "increasingly self-consistent" and willing to concede "more independent validity to other traditions," are nevertheless just as "labored" and "dialogically barren" as the fulfillment theologies of a generation ago. In the end, they resort to epicycles that "spin inwardly in self-justificatory spirals" and remain untenable, irrelevant, and ridiculous to people outside the inclusivist's hermeneutical circle (25, 45-56).
Besides this unfashionable, but forceful, apology for the plausibility of the pluralist model over its exclusivist and inclusivist competitors, Rose's volume also helpfully taps into the Rubicon-crossing potential of the religious traditions themselves, taking issue with particularist detractors who dismiss the pluralistic hypothesis as merely a modern, Western imposition (69). Using the Hindu Upanishads and the New Testament as case studies (see chapters 5 and 6), Rose finds precedent for apophatic pluralism (whether overt or latent) within the world's religions, despite their inclinations (whether strong or weak) toward exclusivism and/or inclusivism.
Perhaps the most controversial facet of the book is Rose's contention (fleshed out predominantly in chapter 8) that "religion is the human quest to relate to an immaterial dimension of beatitude and deathlessness" (12). This definition is both "religious"—inasmuch as religion is seen as "sui generis," that is, distinct from and unexhausted by cultural, psychological, historical, sociological, material, and biological processes—and "unashamedly essentialist"—inasmuch as testimony to the beatific and the deathless is "perennial," binding the religions together (12, 15, 149–50, 158). Rose, therefore, pushes back on several theoretical and methodological trends in the academic study of religion: crass reductionisms, which make religious studies a mere "appendage" to anthropology, evolutionary biology, and so on; hegemonic scientisms, which limit religiosity to that which is scientifically explainable; and one-sided constructivisms, contextualisms, and nominalisms, which ignore "formally identical religious objects" (e.g., "an ineffable, singular ultimate") and common meanings, insights, [End Page 242] experiences, and ideas across religions and cultures (154-57). To be sure, the interdisciplinary research conducted by scholars of religion is absolutely imperative, and "thick descriptions" of particular religious heritages "represent the first data-gathering step in the method native to religious studies" (159). Nonetheless, religionists must also seek to direct people to "the spiritual realities that underlie human life" and distill "the general principles and intentions that are expressed ever and again in specific traditions" (150-51). The quest to identify "generic features" of human religiousness can be aided by "the universalizing, nomothetic concerns" of earlier comparative theologies and history-of-religions approaches as well as by the cognitive science of religion. Rose, though, desires to jettison the Eurocentric and theistic biases of the former and the reductive materialism of the latter.
Rose's realist, nonreductionistic, anti-antiuniversalistic, and (to some extent) theological account of religion is a breath of fresh air. However, I want to register one criticism, one word of caution, and one reservation. My criticism is that Rose theorizes human religiosity (and religious plurality) without ever grappling with recent genealogical and postcolonial interrogations of the categories "religion" and "religions." This literature, in my judgment, is rife with exaggerations, but it, nevertheless, raises a number of crucial red flags (e.g., essentializing, reification, ideological distortion, etc.) and, as such, warrants serious attention. My word of caution is that, if Rose is not careful, his larger theory of religion may work at cross-purposes with his effort to revitalize the pluralistic hypothesis, for it embodies the very cataphatic pluralism that antipluralists swiftly condemn, namely, the conviction that a "universal religious teaching" (in Rose's case, the proclamation that "death is not final") unites all the religions (8, 149). Particularists protest (fairly, in my view) that pluralists, in the midst of accenting commonalities, often run roughshod over the deep, real, and significant differences between the religions. Clearly, Rose eschews "naïvely realistic definitions," which "fail to capture the diversity of religious intentions" (12). And he praises theologians like Heim for emphasizing the irreducible distinctiveness of the various faiths (33). Still, lest he become yet another victim of antipluralist dismissals, Rose would do well to follow his own advice and (a) foreground historically conscious and richly textured ethnographies of concrete religious particularities, and (b) apply the "apophatic scalpel" even to his own definition of religion (159, 161). My reservation, lastly, is that many of the religious naturalists who read this journal (myself included), while sharing Rose's repudiation of scientistic reductionisms and "materialist denials of religion" (159), will balk at the postulation of "a realm of knowledge and experience that is prior to and more fundamental than the realm of time and space available to the senses" (15). Religious naturalism, I would venture, [End Page 243] provides a more credible metaphysical framework for a pluralist theology of religions, affirming the immaterial aspects, sacred depths, profound mystery, and inexhaustible multidimensionality of this world (the actual "ineffable, singular ultimate" to which humanity's plural traditions diversely, symbolically, nonabsolutely, and fallibly respond), without positing dimensions (deathless, beatific, or otherwise) beyond, behind, or outside of nature and history.
All that said, I cannot recommend Pluralism: The Future of Religion strongly enough. Everybody interested in theological and philosophical approaches to religious diversity, comparative theology, and/or interfaith dialogue—especially anyone wishing to cling to the exclusive or inclusive finality of her/his tradition—needs to read this text and wrestle with its potent arguments. After more than twenty years of particularist admonishments of the pluralist model (some of which are justified, in my estimation), it is high time to recross the theological Rubicon. And, thankfully, Rose has given us a reliable compass for the journey, compellingly showing that pluralism is not only the future of religion but also the sine qua non of meaningful interreligious thinking and engagement in our global present. [End Page 244]