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Religion in the Modern World: Celebrating pluralism and diversity, by Keith Ward

05 July 2019

John Saxbee on a study of the complex, urgent problem of competing claims to God’s truth

THERE are hundreds of religions in the world, and many of them make claims that contradict the claims of other religions. Keith Ward asks why this is so, and whether this huge diversity puts all particular claims to religious truth in question, since there seems little evidence that would settle which claims are true.

His general conclusion is that “diversity in religion is natural and good, and . . . there are rational ways of discriminating between religious truth-claims.”

This is a bold claim, but Ward has never shirked hard questions, and there can be little doubt that in a world of increasing inter-religious conflict and incomprehension this is a topic that is as urgent as it is com­plex.

Ward can also be relied upon to bring something fresh and distinctive to fields of study already well ploughed by some of the best minds, ancient and modern.

The scene is set in Part One by his querying Durkheim’s over-emphasis on the behavioural aspects of religion. Ward wants doctrinal and experiential dimensions to sit along­side rituals, morals, and organisations when evaluating truth-claims made by rival (complementary?) religions across space and time.

A key conclusion here is that “any consideration of the various truth-claims that religions make must . . . be made with regard to their specific historical, linguistic, and cultural contexts”.

Reductionist? Relativist? We shall see!

In Part Two, Ward, grapples with “perennial philosophy” as expounded by, for example, Aldous Huxley. He roundly declares that there is no such thing, but “there is, underlying many religions, a rather general belief in the existence of a spiritual dimension, which is often thought to be of supreme value.”

(I)t may be that looking to find a direction to historical change that points to the future rather than attempting to retrieve a forgotten past is more helpful to solving the problem of how to believe religiously in a world of so many diverse beliefs.

This turn to the future sets Ward’s compass when it comes to his direction of travel, and it is driven by major changes in human understanding which impact decisively on religious truth-claims inherited from the past.

The rise of scientific method and a more critical approach to sacred texts are just two such developments explored in Part Three. Here, Bultmann, Kant, Schleiermacher, and Hegel feature prominently — and it is especially refreshing to see Kant’s often ambivalent, but ultimately sincere, valorising of religion taken seriously.

Ernst Troeltsch testifies to the rise of a new historical consciousness, and the development of religious pluralism “which refuses to privilege one religion as superior to . . . others, and which tries to see all religions as authentic paths to an ultimate reality and truth”.

It is to “the pluralist hypotheses” that Ward turns in Part Four, and, having assessed the work of John Hick and Cantwell Smith, he concludes that “it is not a coherent hypothesis” — at least when applied to religions as such rather than to particular truth-claims.

However, he notes that pluralists acknowledge the provisionality of such religious truth-claims, as they are likely “to be partial and culture-influenced”. This reinforces Ward’s own view that if religions acknowledge such provisionality, then diversity is not a problem, and a future in which religions co-exist peaceably and creatively together is entirely plausible.

After citing mainly Protestant thinkers thus far, Ward devotes Part Five to examining the writings of five Roman Catholic theologians including, of course, Hans Küng and Karl Rahner. These demonstrate a move “from a rigorous exclusivism towards . . . some form of pluralism”, but the official RC stance re­­mains, of course, essentially exclus­ivist.

Ward’s overall conclusion is that “between the view that there is a common core of all religions, and that they all simply contradict one another, there is a third way. This is a way of dialectical interaction.”

This entails a journey towards truth that always lies ahead, as each religion, within its own particular historical and cultural context, reflects, from its unique perspective, on other beliefs it encounters, and evolves towards “a fuller understanding of our many ways of pursuing the search for a supreme objective Good, making for universal human well-being”.

This is an entirely worthwhile enterprise, and Ward’s conclusions provide a positive prospectus for inter-religious relationships now and in the future.

Although there is some­thing rather idiosyncratic about the roster of witnesses whom he calls in developing his argument, he effectively squares his explicit Chris­tian commitment with a celebration of pluralism and diversity — thus inspiring hope for that peace among nations which Hans Küng believes can come only when there is peace among the world’s religions.

The Rt Revd Dr John Saxbee is a former Bishop of Lincoln.

Religion in the Modern World: Celebrating pluralism and diversity
Keith Ward
Cambridge University Press £21.99
Church Times Bookshop £19.80

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