Friday, August 20, 2004

Religion and Soteriology: Some Responses to Kim

In his stimulating post A Quickie on Soteriology, Kevin Kim has this to say:

Dr. Vallicella offers a very interesting response to my previous post and rejects my claim that not all religions have soteriologies. It appears that Dr. Vallicella and I are proceeding from different definitions of the word "religion." Dr. Vallicella's stance makes sense because it flows naturally from his definition, but I'm not sure how his definition would apply to the cases I mentioned, to wit: "primitive" agricultural and hunter-gatherer faiths (again, with "faith" used only loosely and with caution here) whose primary concern wasn't and isn't existential (i.e., they're not an expression of fundamental dissatisfaction with the human condition), but merely related to world-maintenance, not some form of self- or world-transcendence. Members of these traditions don't see anything fundamentally wrong with the world, nor do they envision a Way Out, to use Dr. Vallicella's term. Their tradition and practice are a reflection of "how things are" and even "how things should be."

BV: John Hick distinguishes between religious and naturalistic definitions of religion:

According to the former, religion ... centers upon an awareness of and response to a reality that transcends ourselves and our world, whether the 'direction' of transcendence be beyond or within or both. Such definitions presuppose the reality of the intentional object of religious thought and experience .... Naturalistic definitions on the other hand describe religion as a purely human activity or state of mind. (An Interpretation of Religion, Yale UP, 1989, p. 3)

One issue is whether Kim would describe his approach as naturalistic in Hick's sense. I myself am not primarily interested in religion as a purely human activity. Thus I am not primarily interested in the psychology, sociology, or anthropology of religion. My main interest is in the truth-claims that religions make, and whether any of these claims are true. Is religion a way to reality? Or does religion lead us AWAY from reality, as Marxists, Nietzscheans, and Freudians would maintain? Is one of the extant religions true? Is it so much as possible that a religion be true?

Similarly, I am interested in philosophy as a way to truth, and thus not primarily interested in the history of philosophical doctrines or in the sociology of philosophical knowledge. Again, I am interested in reasoning as a way to truth, but not primarily in reasoning as a psychological process.

Further analogies: one can imagine a scholar of menus: he visits restaurants around the world to study their menus, but he never orders anything. For this scholar, a menu is a human artifact interesting in its own right; the fact that it is a means to the ordering of food is a fact he ignores. The menu scholar has a colleague who is a map collector and scholar: she never uses maps to go anywhere, she simply studies them as interesting objects in their own right. One can study religions in this way, and presumably this is the way one would study them on a naturalistic approach.

Given that religious truth-claims are what primarily interest me, it is natural that I should exclude any system of beliefs and practices that cannot possibly be true. Thus, to put it bluntly and somewhat tendentiously, I don't count the superstitious beliefs and practices of primitive peoples as religion. Why not? Well, they are based on ignorance of the causal structure of the physical world. These 'primitives' are trying to achieve physical results by magical means, e.g, dancing around to make rain fall. Their beliefs and practices are superstitious/magical, not religious. Their gods and powers are idols, merely stronger physical powers and forces that they attempt to propitiate and control for their own mundane physical benefit. It is a kind of pseudo-technology built on pseudo-science. I would say it has nothing to do with religion properly understood.

I admit that it is very difficult to pin down the difference between superstition and religion. A plastic Jesus figurine on the dashboard -- is that superstitious? Yes, if the motorist thinks that a material icon will ward off traffic accidents. What if the motorist takes the icon as an icon, i.e., as representing a spiritual being, the incarnate Word? That's better, but to think that the incarnate Word is going to interfere in mundane traffic events also borders on superstition. But if the motorist has the figurine on the dashboard merely to remind him of his personal spiritual relationship with a spiritual person, a person to whom he prays not for mundane benefits, but for such spiritual benefits as the ability to handle with equanimity whatever comes in the material world -- then I say that is pretty close to true, nonsuperstitious religion.

I suppose it follows naturally from Dr. Vallicella's definition that the primitive faiths to which I'm referring aren't really religions. My own labeling of these faiths as religions is sourced in the empirical fact that many (if not most) scholars label them thus, and my own definition of religion is expansive enough to place me in that scholarly camp. The claim that not all religions have soteriologies isn't original to me; I just happen to agree with it.

But it's also true that Dr. Vallicella isn't alone in defining religion more rigorously than I and others do; there are plenty of scholars who'd back him up (I'd name them if I had my library with me, but it's back in the States). I, however, feel that Dr. Vallicella's definition works best for the major post-axial faiths.

I was about to write that what separates Dr. Vallicella from me re: the definition of religion is a mere terminological quibble, but that's not true. The issue of how to define such terms as religion and soteriology lies at the very heart of the ongoing discussion of religious pluralism. John Hick's term, "salvation/liberation," designed to be a catch-all for all major types of soteriology, has come under intense fire for its near-total lack of cognitive content: like statistical averages, it purportedly applies to everyone but specifies almost no one. Buddhists, by their own reckoning, don't seek to attain "salvation/liberation." Nor do Christians, Muslims, etc. One question for religious scholars and practitioners is the extent to which general notions of religion and soteriology are even valuable if, in actual practice, no one is attaining "salvation in general."

BV: Suppose I go to the supermarket to buy fruit. I can't buy fruit without buying apples or oranges or pears or kiwis or .... Fruit in general is simply not to be had. Kim appears to be suggesting that salvation in general is not to be had, that only particular forms of salvation are to be had, so that, for example, entry into Nibbana is entirely distinct from the Beatific Vision. But this is not clear. Why can't salvation/liberation be like a room into which many doors open? Different religions, different doors, but the same room. Or is this too superficial an analogy?