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Pluralism and the Being of the Between

Mark H. Grear Mann
Boston University

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ABSTRACT: In this paper I attempt to reassess the age-old problem of conflicting religious truth-claims by utilizing the fundamental metaphysical insights of William Desmond. I first outline and critique ways that philosophers have traditionally attempted to address this issue, focusing my critique on the standard model (viz., exclusivism, inclusivism and pluralism) used to describe different ways of making claims about truth. I then develop Desmond’s "fourfold sense of being" (the univocal, equivocal, dialectical and metaxological) as an alternative approach. My conclusion is that Desmond’s metaphysics provides a constructive model for addressing conflicting truth-claims, while also avoiding the pitfalls inherent in the traditional typological approach.

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As a theologian by training and not a philosopher, I wish to explore the boundary line between the two so-called fields of study, utilizing metaphysical considerations to attempt to tackle what we would normally identify as purely theological issues, but which by their very nature beg boundary crossings. Theologians are notorious boundary crossers, often drawing upon philosophy both to generate the questions and cultivate the answers of their craft. My aim is to utilize metaphysics to explore the possibility of reorienting religious dialogue. Despite recent advances in dialogue, very real obstacles to real dialogue still remain, particularly for those who identify themselves as coming from "conservative" and "evangelical" sectors of religion who are more likely to view it as a threat to the integrity of their faith. Our world is one torn by violence and terror, at least partly motivated by religious dissent. Within this pressure-cooker of competing religious voices, there is a growing need for theologians and to find creative ways of bringing even the most reactionary of traditionalists to the discussion table. Addressing this situation presents one of the most pressing challenges for today's theologians, and by fiat, today’s philosophers as well.

The particular task of this essay is address this issue first with a criticism of the way in which the question of religious truth-claims is usually framed, moving to the development of a new framework for the discussion. I will first outline the traditional approach to this issue, pointing out how it accentuates the aforementioned problem. Secondly, I will reframe the problem using William Desmond's fourfold sense of being to formulate a stance toward religious dialogue that is more sensitive to evangelical needs. What I wish ultimately to accomplish is to provide a framework by which evangelicals can enter wholeheartedly into dialogue without a priori selling out what is most important about being evangelical.

Three Stances Toward the Religious Other

The standard typology used to address the issue of competing religious truth claims includes three approaches: exclusivism, inclusivism and pluralism. This typology most directly addresses soteriological issues, or how or whether a person of another religious tradition can find salvation without converting to my religion. Briefly put, exclusivism is the belief that the truth of one religion exclude the claims of others such that only one religious community can find salvation. Inclusivism generally is the belief in the ultimate superiority of one's own faith, but not to the necessary exclusion of other religions that reflect a lesser degree of truth and within which it is possible for persons to find salvation, though one's own religious truth becomes the umbrella for the salvation of persons belonging to more or less false religions. Pluralism is the belief that ultimately no single religion is superior, that all religions are equally valid avenues to ultimate truth and salvation. These three categories are helpful in explaining how persons have postured themselves toward the religious other. However, they do not provide a stance from which evangelicals can wholeheartedly enter into inter-religious dialogue. As already noted, exclusivism is the stance that has traditionally been taken for granted by evangelicals, for at first look it sustains the all-important universality of evangelical truth-claims. The problem is that this particular perspective gives no real reason for evangelicals to enter dialogue. If only I have the truth, then I have no reason to listen to what you have to say except perhaps to nurture a relationship through which I will eventually gain the opportunity to prove my truth. This is not dialogue, but a surreptitious form of monologue. Real dialogue simply presents too much of a threat to the exclusivist, for whom truth is usually an either/or proposition: either you are wrong, or I am wrong, and being proven wrong requires no less than a complete conversion. So much is at stake from this perspective, it is no wonder that exclusivists are highly suspicious of dialogue.

Pluralism presents exactly the opposite scenario. If we accept the plurality of religious truth, then we have all the reason in the world for entering into dialogue which offers mutual benefit in the ongoing search for greater truth and harmony. However, pluralism presents its own problems, and especially for evangelicals for whom believing in the ultimacy and universality of their truth is not a point of discussion. To assume a priori that all other religious traditions possess truth equal to one’s own is simply unacceptable for an evangelical. Additionally, pluralists risk the Charybdis of essentialism and on the one side and the Scylla of relativism on the other. First, if we say that all religions are basically the same, we fall guilty to reducing the real differences and conflicts that do exist. Seeing the other as such is absolutely fundamental to the success of dialogue. Also, if we say that all religious truths are equally correct or valid, then do we say that the Hitler's truth is as true as the truth of Christian love or Buddhist compassion? We all wish to avoid this kind of relativism!

Inclusivism provides a mediating position between exclusivism and pluralism in which Christians, for instance, claim that Buddhists, Muslims, et al., can find salvation, but do so ultimately through Christ. From a Christian perspective, inclusivism seems to preserve what is most important about the Christian gospel — the centrality and universality of the figure of the Christ for human salvation. Inclusivism also seems at first to make dialogue for the evangelical an authentic possibility, for inclusivists accept that the religious other may possess a certain measure of truth, even if in an inferior or merely implicit sense. From such a perspective, dialogue may be conducted both as an evangelical endeavor and as an attempt to understand the full richness of the way in which my truth potentially functions for the salvation of the entire world. But inclusivism also presents serious obstacles to open and honest dialogue. First, is the problem of "imperialism." In other words, does my calling a Buddhist an "anonymous Christian" (to use inclusivist theologian Karl Rahner’s terminology) engender the possibility of dialogue between myself and that Buddhist? Probably not, but the even deeper problem remains that of my reducing the other's true singularity and particularity into my terms. Of course this is always a problem when attempting to understand the other, but inclusivism gives greater power to the sustaining of an essentialism and reductionism that impedes true understanding. Although inclusivism provides a better stance for evangelicals in dialogue with others, it has its own pitfalls. Our challenge, then, is to find a model that encourages evangelicals to enter dialogue with the universality of the gospel intact at least a priori, while allowing for the otherness of the other and openness to transformation in the dialogical encounter.

The Four Voices of Being

To this end, we turn to William Desmond's metaphysical reflections on the nature of being. But why metaphysics? By searching for a posture in which evangelicals can best enter into religious dialogue, what we are also investigating is the very nature of truth, and how it is that we relate to truth. This is also the aim of metaphysical reflection which addresses itself to such questions as the nature and/or truth of being and how we relate to or participate in being. Desmond speaks of a fourfold sense of being, meaning that there are four different ways of thinking about being, four articulations or "voices" of being: the univocal, the equivocal, the dialectical, and the metaxological. First, univocity stresses the sameness or unity of being. It is expressed in the attempt to "pin" things down with a certain definitiveness, to say that the being of a thing can be reduced to a denotation, to explain away all mystery, ambiguity and equivocity. There is both a positive and a negative side to univocity. In some sense, univocity is a necessary part of our being able to make intelligible anything at all, for our experience of life is ambiguous enough that it is helpful to impose univocity in order to make life sensible. That life can generally be made sensible indicates that there is a measure of unity and determinateness to being. For instance, unless we have univocalized ways of defining and understanding traffic laws, how can we know what to do at a red light? We know to stop because conventionally a red traffic light means "Stop." Any ambiguity about this leads to serious problems. So, common sense and science are all dependent upon univocal knowing, and upon the common assumption that "a thing is itself and not anything other," and can be understood as such (Desmond 1995, 48-9). However, problems enter when we seek to absolutize univocity. This has been one of the main projects of the history of philosophy, dating back to the pre-Socratics, but taking on a new force in the Modern Era. Descartes especially expresses a great fear of equivocity in his search to dispel all doubt. Modern "scientism" is the child of this distrust, this suspicion of ambiguity and equivocity as it aims to reduce all of the universe to a fully determinate set of categories. But evident already in this drive to overcome equivocity, there is present an equivocity that cannot be ignored. The human mind that seeks to univocalize cannot be explained by that univocalization, for to attempt to univocalize is to transcend that univocity.

Simply as self-transcending, mind is an anomaly to the universal mechanics; it is excess, a surplus, ultimately indeed a surd. In a word, scientific univocity reduces being to something that cannot account for scientific mind itself . . . univocal mind cannot explain itself or its own love of univocity, for both are beyond mechanistic univocalizing (63-4).

Thus, the equivocal voice emphasizes difference without unity, or a sense of unmediated difference. It is the shady side of being that eludes our efforts to pin it down and dodges our controlling grasp. Philosophers and theologians alike tend to be lovers of order, and so suspicious of equivocity and its ambiguities, for it possesses a doubleness, a disconcerting openness and complexity; it is an abyss, an imbroglio that can never be fathomed, grasped, or mastered. Problems with equivocity arise too when it is absolutized to the exclusion of other voices:

Equivocal thinking can turn into a skepticism, thence into a dissolution of all determinate intelligibility, thence into an exultation in the power to negate all mediations, finally hardening into a dogmatism of nihilism that insists there is no sense to be made and that no sense will be made. This hardened nihilism is a dogmatic contraction of the self-transcending of mindfulness (131).

But we cannot stop with the ambivalence of equivocity, for equivocity itself is self-subverting. So,

we do not reject univocity, but total retreat to univocity is out. We do not reject equivocity, but the nihilistic totalization of equivocity is out. We need to go beyond both, which means acknowledging the contributory truth of both (131-2).

Our search for a sense of being that includes and accounts for both univocal unity and equivocal difference brings us to first the dialect: which is the mediation of difference from the side of unity. This implies that there is an ultimate togetherness or community in the many voices of being which at first seem equivocally opposed. Disagreement in this sense is not an ultimate opposition, but implicitly leads to an interplay that searches for and drives for a deeper togetherness. For Hegel, an important Western proponent of dialectical thinking, the dialectic is an attempt to overcome the Kantian subject-object split. Hegel believed that to be able to talk about this split was to transcend it in a greater subject-object unity. In this sense, the dialectic is the self reaching out to the other in a self-transcendence that ultimately overreaches the other, taking the other into the self. For Hegel this is erotic in that the self transcends itself out of a kind of lack, and finds its fullness dynamically mediated in and through the other. The other, then, is the means for self-mediation and self-fulfillment, driven by what Desmond calls erotic perplexity. This allows for a depth that opens into a complex interiority.

But this dialectic fails to account for the true depth and complexity of being. For Hegel, "being is the pure self-determination of thought thinking itself" (169), a dynamic process which begins with the absolute "emptiness of the indefinite" (173). There is something impoverished about ultimate being needing the other to fulfill itself, and in fulfilling itself taking on determinant completeness. Such dialectic is closed — it is the mediation of self and other in a double movement that is merely the prelude to a final univocity. Hegel's dialectic shows the other in the end not to be other at all, but merely another form of self. Hegel, then, is a dialectical univocalist, who has no place for true equivocity. This pushes us further still, to seek a more open sense of being that more fully accounts for the intermediation of difference-through-unity that is beyond self-mediated unity. This is the being of the between, or the metaxological sense of being.

First, the between is plurivocal, incorporating the other three voices of being: it acknowledges and consolidates the sober unity and wholeness of univocity, the reveling ambivalence and diversity of equivocity, and the dialectical mediation of unity and difference, of self and other. Second, the metaxological is also a move beyond the dialectic, because the mediation of the metaxu is an intermediation between a community of wholes, a community of singular selves that are given to be by something that is ultimately not themselves. Thus, to the between there is a kind of infinite complexity, an infinite multiplication of mediation, a dynamic of relatedness of singularities. This is a "pluralized intermediation" that is beyond all totalization. It is helpful to distinguish the between from the dialectic by pointing out that the dialectic is erotic, while the metaxu is fundamentally agapeic. What this means is that the happening of the between is not the self mediating itself through or in the other because of a lack or self-poverty (as with the dialectic); rather the between is selves given in otherness because of the overflowing, agapeic fullness of being. This fullness is "over-determined" and "hyperbolic," and as such the ground of the plurality of being(s) of the between. It is also the ground of what Desmond calls agapeic astonishment — the pure wonder that being is at all — which is the source of all metaphysical thinking.

Religious Dialogue: Being True in the Between

As already suggested, what is has implications for how we do or perhaps should relate to what is. Religious persons understand this point well, interpreting being in terms of certain categories and stories around which they construct their individual and communal lives. This highlights the givenness of our participation in being. All of our discussions about being must include discussion of ourselves and our relation to being, for being is not something that we can step outside and view in the abstract. The whole of being is more than the singular I who is presenting this paper, but part of the whole of being is this singular person struggling to convey thoughts and ideas through speech. So, we relate to being as something greater than ourselves, yet something that we are as well. Our questions of being, then, always include questions about our participation in being. If we think of religious dialogue as a kind of participation in being (which we should), what we believe about the being of religious truth affects what we do as well. In this sense, the truth of my posture towards the truth of being is the truth of being, and vice versa. The task before us, then, is to relate the being of the between to our participation in the truth of the between as religious persons in a world of competing religious truths.

Univocity as the description of a stance toward religious truth is perhaps what has been the most problematic in regard to the question at hand, particularly when wedded to a correspondence or, what theologian George Lindbeck calls, a cognitive-propositional theory of truth. This view asserts that cognitive propositions have a direct correspondence to the reality of being. Such is the view of all fundamentalists who by-and-large affirm that ultimate truth is a set of propositions that can be cognitively known, spoken about, and affirmed as such. Salvation, from such a perspective, connects directly to correct knowledge of the truth, and high priority is given to orthodoxy. Such univocity is important for the religious enterprise, for it is human communities that constitute religious traditions, and the ideas and beliefs that these traditions affirm are what give them coherence and continuity. No human community can function or survive without some univocal sense of the truth of its beliefs, and the language the conveys that truth.

The problem with is in assuming that human cognition or categories can fully grasp or encompass the truth, which is simply not possible. The tradition of via negativa, found in different forms in all of the major world religions, is continually there to remind that even the most orthodox of words, categories, doctrinal and dogmatic formulations always fall short of expressing the ultimate reality or truth of being. Also from the univocal perspective, there is little reason to take a dialogical stance toward the religious other. If I believe in my truth univocally, then all other views are merely greater or lesser degrees of fallacy. Univocity pits the so-called truths of religions against each other in a battle in which there can be only one winner. But all efforts to univocalize the truth of being are doomed to failure, for they are like attempts to control God. Ultimate truth is not the possession of human beings whatever happens to have been revealed — truth cannot be mastered; there remains a deep ambiguity about it for which we must be able to account.

This directs us then to speak of the equivocity of truth as a helpful corrective to the univocalizing tendencies of religious persons and communities. The equivocal also helps to maintain the cutting edge to the life and vitality of religious faith, and to ensure that it never calcifies into rigid categories that stifle and extinguish the light of living faith. Equivocity grounds the humility of the adept: because I can never possess truth, I am continually directed to a total life of surrender to the truth — a great virtue in every religious tradition (480). But the dark side of equivocity arises when stirred into its own anarchic absolutism. The chaos of the abyss of absolutized equivocal truth is a labyrinth in which all paths lead to skepticism, cynicism, and mistrust and in which there is no truth, no meaning, no faith, no reason even to love. There is, in Sartre's words, "no exit" from this hell of nihilistic equivocity. Equivocity gone amuck is as anesthetizing and deadening as univocity, for there is no way to begin to make any sense or meaning of the truth, much less to communicate about truth with others. To make sense of our search for a living stance toward the religious other, we must find a richer understanding of religious truth that somehow incorporates both the univocal and equivocal.

The dialectic is a helpful option here as an attempt to mediate unity and difference, the self and other, recognizing difference and otherness, and ultimately attempting to assimilate them into the greater unity of the self-whole. The dialectic of religious truth recognizes its own lack, and its need for the other to come to the fullness of itself. What is most important to recognize about the dialectic is that it is erotically driven. In our earlier discussion of inclusivism we noted that it marks a recognition of the possible truth of the other, although interpreted in terms of "my" greater truth. Likewise, the erotic dialectic of truth recognizes the other as such, and moves out to the other to embrace its truth as necessary to its own fuller truth. What is potentially lost in making the self the ultimate locus of truth (as is the case with both dialectic and inclusivism) is the truth of otherness — the true depth, complexity, and singularity of the other as other. With the dialectic, this so-called embrace of the other occurs out of an original lack in the truth of the self. Is there a sense of fear that leads the erotic self to co-opt, and eventually to seek to control the other by holding sole possession of the defining of the other? Perhaps. So, as a reason for and stance toward religious dialogue, dialectic offers promise, but also falls short. For in the dialectic,

truth is not at all correspondence with what is external or other; it is the highest coherence, the self-coherence of thought thinking itself in the other that is only itself again. All otherness is subsumed within the truth as this absolute self-coherence (484).

Here the search for religious truth runs into the same problem as that of univocity, for "in our knowing, there is no absolute coherence, no pure thought thinking itself, no closed circle. The equivocal returns" (485). This not only highlights the problem of inclusivism, but also of a pluralism that seeks to reduce all religious truths into their least common denominator. Just when we think that we have it all figured out, and have the other figured into our inclusive and systemic whole, we find that we actually do not understand the other, that we cannot make sense of the other in our own terms. This drives us beyond ourselves, into the between, where the true intermediation of dialogue can occur and we can see the truly obtrusive singularity of the other.

The metaxu is a difficult place to describe in terms of religious dialogue and truth because it is such a rich, complex and plurivocal place of happening. The metaxu embraces the drive toward univocity that enables the religious community to function meaningfully; it embraces the equivocity that keeps that community alive, searching, and humble; and it embraces the richness of the attempt of the dialectic to hold together and mediate univocity and equivocity. But the metaxu moves beyond the dialectic by accounting for the community of singular persons and religious truths that cannot be reduced or mediated into or by an ultimately determinate view of the truth. The most important thing to recognize about the truth of the metaxu is that it relishes that the ultimate truth of being is agapeic. Ultimate truth is an unbounded, overabundance of truth, a community of voices each with its own particular integrity. Within this overflow there may appear to be contradiction, as is the case with conflicting religious truth claims. Says Desmond:

It will be said that truth unity and cannot contradicted itself. I suggest that truth entails not just unity but community, and it is within the community of truth that the opposition of contradiction gets its meaning and truth. Contradiction does not put us outside the truth, but rather gets its truth from being placed within the network of the community of truth. Truth pluralizes itself, not because it is the fragmentation of a one into a dispersed many, but because there is transcendence to it that can never be exhausted by any finite one or determinate unity. If there is a unity of truth, it must be extraordinarily rich in itself, over-determined; it must be a community within itself and hence not adequately described in the language of unity, which too easily slides back to the unsophisticated ontology of univocal mind (494).

This means not that the truth of every religion is necessarily of equal value or validity, much less does it mean that the truth of all religions are basically the same. But it does mean that my understanding of truth can never a priori exclude your understanding of it. The true richness, complexity, and depth of such truth require that we always be critically open to the truth of the other as the opportunity to see deeper into the greater fullness of truth. This does not require the a priori surrender of claims to the universality of one’s truth, which actually may be of central importance to the singularity of one’s religion and should not be compromised in the search for religious truth. But is does require possessing a non-univocal notion of universality, or that this universality be asserted provisionally, to use the language of American pragmatist Charles Peirce.

Earlier I claimed that what is most important about the truth of being is not what we can know and say about it, but how it affects us, how we relate ourselves to it and participate in it. In this sense, how we relate to the other and the truth of the other is potentially our access to the truth. What our discussion has shown, I believe, is that the truest stance is marked by an agapeic openness to the totality of the religious other. If we understand ultimate truth as agapeic, then we can also put our trust in its emergence through our vulnerability and openness of the dialogical relation. As such, religious truth is not something that needs to be defended or protected. Defense and protection implies that truth is something that we own. But truth does not belong to us; we belong to truth, and especially so when we open ourselves to its agapeic overflow. Agapeic openness to the other is a self-giving of the love of the truth that honors the truth beyond but also within the claims of both the self and the other. As an evangelical believer, I am called to share my particular vision of the truth with passion and vulnerability because of my love for it and my wish my neighbor to know my truth. But, I must listen to my neighbor’s truth with equal passion because my love for truth overflows into openness to the other, and because my openness engenders a greater community of openness under and to the truth. Together in dialogue we make ourselves vulnerable to the truth in an agapeic act of truth that is itself the ultimate being true of the between. The between of religious dialogue is a scary place to be, particularly for such person's as evangelicals who take truth seriously enough to have some sense of what is truly at stake, for this between is a place of vulnerability, of confrontation with the audacious otherness of the other, of potential exposure to questioning, revision and change. But the between is a place to which evangelicals of all stripes can and must bring their particular visions of the truth.

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