THE CHALLENGE OF RADICAL PLURALISM:
A POST-MODERN DEVELOPMENT
The greatest philosophical challenge to the Bahá'í principle of
religious unity originates from the diverse group of current trends in
philosophy and literary criticism that fall under the general heading of
"post-modernism." Radical pluralism may be seen as one such trend in the
post-modern movement. Radical pluralism, as it applies to the study of
religion, holds that even after one employs the kind of perspectivism advocated
by the Bahá'í Faith, there remain "irreducible aspects,"
"mutually incommensurable insights" and stubbornly different doctrines and
world views in every religious tradition that cannot simply be reduced to some
"monolithic unity," intellectual abstraction, or ultimate reality.
Wilfred Cantwell Smith expresses this sentiment
well when he writes
I find the religious diversity of the world almost bewilderingly complex. The
more I study, the more variegated I find the religious scene to be. I have no
reason to urge a thesis of unity among 'the religions of the
world'. As a matter of fact, I do not find unity even within one so-called
'religion', let alone among all.... It is not the case that all religions are
the same. The historian notes that not even one religion is the same, century
after century, or from one country to another, or from village to city.... I
repeat: it is not the case that all religions are the same. Moreover, if a
philosopher asks (anhistorically) what they all have in common, he or she
either finds the answer to be 'nothing', or finds that they all have in common
something so much less than each has separately as to distort or to evacuate
the individual richness and depth and sometimes grotesqueness of actual
What Smith and others argue is that such differences are either largely
ignored, viewed as relatively unimportant secondary or non-essential aspects;
or worse, that such differences represent corrupt degenerations from some
supposed pure or essential core of truth.
The Charge of Misinterpretation
Radical pluralists make at least three important criticisms against views
which advocate a perennialist or primordial philosophy (usually some form of
perspectivism or inclusivism based on the presumed existence of some ultimate
reality or transcendent unity). First, it is held that such views must
misinterpret every religion in order to uncover some presumed unifying factor.
Langdon Gilkey makes this point in his criticism of the general approach
towards religious pluralism of Frithjof Schuon, Huston Smith, Wilfred Cantwell
Smith, John Hick, and Paul Knitter
[The single 'essence of religion' which this approach seeks] represents --
try as it may to avoid it -- a particular way of being religious... Thus it has
to misinter pret every other tradition in order to incorporate them into
its own scheme of understanding. In the end, therefore, it represents the same
religious colonialism that Christianity used to practice so effectively: the
interpretation of an alien viewpoint in terms of one's own religious center and
so an incorporation of that viewpoint into our own system of understanding.
In this process of misinterpretation, certain presumed truths or essential
teachings are often extracted out of their cultural contexts and displayed as
universal principles. Cultural anthropologist Michael Fischer makes an argument
typical of this type of criticism. Upon visiting the Bahá'í House
of Worship in Wilmette, Illinois, where he afterwards attended a
Bahá'í prayer meeting featuring readings from various religious
texts, Fischer observed that
This was, perhaps, the syncretism that the Bahá'í Faith claims
to foster: when one becomes a Bahá'í, one does not reject one's
previous faith but adds to it, one learns to distinguish what is eternal
morality and what are historically conditioned instruments of that morality. As
an anthropologist, however, I was somewhat disappointed: what was read from
each text destroyed the particu larity of the tradition from which it was
drawn, leaving, seemingly, but banal platitudes.
A Bahá'í response to these very real and serious criticisms is
two-fold. First, the Bahá'í writings frequently make a
distinction between the admittedly high ideals of the Faith and the behavior of
its adherents. For example, Shoghi Effendi suggests that the greatest test an
individual Bahá'í ever encounters is from other
Thus, while the
observations that Fischer makes about a particular Bahá'í prayer
meeting are undoubtedly true -- for I have personally experienced similar
situations -- his criticism is appropriately aimed at the behavior of
individual Bahá'í's and not Bahá'í theology.
Nowhere in the Bahá'í sacred writings is such activity either
encouraged or condoned. Indeed, Shoghi Effendi even expressly denies that a
list of fundamental teachings derived from the various religions can even be
The fundamentals of all Divinely-instituted religions cannot be rigidly
classified. No definite or exhaustive list of them can be set up, as we have no
means of ascertaining that what we consider to be those fundamentals are common
to all religions.
Be this as it may, individual Bahá'ís and the
Bahá'í community as a whole need to take Fischer's criticism of
their behavior to heart. With this in mind, I encourage the
Bahá'í community to avoid the temptation of a
"Bahá'í-centric" approach to the world's religions, which would
include, among other things, ripping quotations out of their particular
Secondly, and more to the point, the criticism is made that in advocating a
perspectivist view of the world's religions one must inevitably misinterpret
them in order to fit their disparate doctrines and beliefs into some grand
unity. Let me concede at the onset, that it is often the case that individuals
misinterpret an alien culture or religion, often grossly so. While this is
indeed a serious charge, it raises some important questions. First, it presumes
that a correct interpretation exists or that it can only be made by the
adherents of the particular tradition in question. This brings up the whole
question of whom one can trust to give the definitive view, if such a view even
exists? Secondly, religious diversity is not only a phenomenon which exists
between the various religious traditions, it also exists within any one
religious tradition, as Wilfred Cantwell Smith has so convincingly shown in his
provocative book The Meaning and End of Religion
. This being the case, a
perspectivist interpretation may be just as easily made outside of any
particular tradition as it is made within. This raises an interesting question.
If a Sikh interprets her own faith from a perspectivist standpoint, does she
The sacred writings of the Bahá'í Faith are very clear about its
relationship with other religions. For instance, Shoghi Effendi in a powerfully
worded statement, makes the Bahá'í position on other religions
The Faith standing identified with the name of Bahá'u'lláh
disclaims any intention to belittle any of the Prophets gone before Him, to
whittle down any of their teachings, to obscure, however slightly, the radiance
of their Revelations, to oust them from the hearts of their followers, to
abrogate the fundamentals of their doctrines, to discard any of their revealed
Books, or to suppress the legitimate aspirations of their adherents.
Statements such as these clearly prohibit Bahá'ís from
misinterpreting other religions, even in the name of promoting
Bahá'í ideals or principles. Again, I can only repeat that the
Bahá'í community must seriously heed such words and must actively
avoid ethnocentric and superficial understandings of other religions. Taking
his que from the so-called golden rule, Wilfred Cantwell Smith suggests that:
"In the comparative study of religion, I have found it a good rule to suggest
for the interpretation of others' religious affairs only such theories and
principles of interpretation as may be applicable, or at the least
intelligible, for one's own case."
Finally, there remains the contention that Bahá'í perspectivism
will rob other religious traditions of their richness and unique differences.
The Bahá'í principle of "unity in diversity" is relevant to this
discussion. Briefly stated, the Bahá'í Faith, while advocating
unity among diverse groups, seeks, through this principle, to protect, foster
and even promote such diversity. In fact, members of the Bahá'í
community seem to delight in the experience of encountering diversity -- in all
its multifaceted forms. The challenge of this concept is to recognize unity
where it truly exists, while respecting and appreciating diversity.
Characteristically, Shoghi Effendi is very clear in his statement on the
Bahá'í position on diversity:
[The Bahá'í Faith] does not ignore, nor does it attempt to
suppress, the diversity of ethnical origins, of climate, of history, of
language and tradition, of thought and habit, that differentiate the peoples
and nations of the world. It calls for a wider loyalty, for a larger aspiration
than any that has animated the human race. It insists upon the subordination of
national impulses and interests to the imperative claims of a unified world. It
repudiates excessive centralization on one hand, and disclaims all attempts at
uniformity on the other. Its watchword is unity in diversity ...
'Abdu'l-Bahá, on the other hand, often employs the analogy of a
beautiful flower garden in His explanations of this important principle. For
example, He writes
Consider the flowers of a garden. Though differing in kind, color, form and
shape, yet, inasmuch as they are refreshed by the waters of one spring, revived
by the breath of one wind, invigorated by the rays of one sun, this diversity
increaseth their charm and addeth unto their beauty. How unpleasing to the eye
if all the flowers and plants, the leaves and blossoms, the fruit, the branches
and the trees of that garden were all of the same shape and color! Diversity of
hues, form and shape enricheth and adorneth the garden, and heighteneth the
effect thereof. In like manner, when divers shades of thought, temperament and
character, are brought together under the power and influence of one central
agency, the beauty and glory of human perfection will be revealed and made
manifest. Naught but the celestial potency of the Word of God, which ruleth and
transcendeth the realities of all things, is capable of harmonizing the
divergent thoughts, sentiments, ideas and convictions of the children of men.
Passages such as these indicate the Bahá'í attitude towards
diversity. The attitude is one where differences are not merely respected and
promoted, but enjoyed as well. In summary, the Bahá'í view of
religious unity nowhere seeks to diminish either the uniqueness or even the
particular views of any religious tradition or culture.
The Charge of Unnecessary Abstraction
Related to the first criticism of misinterpretation is one that challenges the
abstract nature of perspectivist theories. Not even the most outspoken critics
of religious perspectivism deny that it carries explanatory power. In fact,
even Panikkar, one of Hick's many critics, admits that he is "prepared to
believe that most of the discrepancies among religions are complimentary and
supplementary views coming from a multiperspectival approach."
Nor is there a problem with the general observa tion that
religious share certain structural affinities. For example, all religions
recognize some transcendent or ultimate reality, they all make a distinction
between the sacred and the profane -- both in theory and in practice, and they
all have rituals, holidays, myths and sacred narratives. Nevertheless, as
Panikkar points out
Humankind is not a skeleton. As medicine is not anatomy, so religion is not a
formal structure. It all depends on the flesh and life we put into these
As I discussed in Chapter II, religion encompasses the lived experience of
people whose lives are transformed by faith, and as Wilfred Cantwell Smith
reminds us, this transformation can be for better or worse. Structural
abstractions like those noted above seem far removed from the day to day and
personal experiences of those who actually live their religion. It is also at
this level that religion is clothed with particular doctrines that seem to defy
any attempt to place them within a scheme of transcendent unity. There are two
responses to this criticism: one of a more general nature, and one specific to
the Bahá'í tradition.
First, the more general response. Frithjof Schuon grounds his argument for a
"transcendent unity of religions" on the distinction between what he calls the
"esoteric" and "exoteric" dimensions of religion.
This distinction, as we shall soon see, takes away much
of the force of this criticism. Schuon identifies the esoteric dimension as the
inherently more mystical of the two. This level is characterized by a monistic
realization of an inclusive, absolute, undifferentiated unity or supreme
identity which can only be spoken of through symbols and myths, allegories and
metaphors. It is at the esoteric level that the concept of the unity of
religions is realized. According to Schuon, while this realization is
potentially available in any tradition or culture, only a small minority of
people in any given tradition ever achieve it. In contrast, the exoteric
dimension is concerned with doctrines and dogmas, outward forms, logical proofs
and concrete images. The exoteric level is characterized by a monotheistic or
dualistic exclusivism which recognizes, as correct, one concrete form or
expression over others. At the exoteric level, for example, Islám is
proclaimed to be the only true religion. It is at this level that the world's
religions are perceived to be both bewilderingly diverse and mutually
Schuon sees the esoteric and exoteric dimensions as embodied in two distinct
personality types found within all religious traditions, with the majority of
religious adherents being exoteric. This is very similar to T. Patrick Burke's
discussion of the "popular" or "devotional" (exoteric) and "reflective"
(esoteric) aspects of religion.
Schuon, Burke argues that the reflective (esoteric) personality type has more
in common with their counterparts in other religious traditions than they do
within their own tradition. The same is true for the popular (exoteric)
personality. In other words, these distinctions cut across religions
Schuon's analysis of the esoteric and exoteric dimensions of religion provides
for an unexpected point of agreement and unity between the religions of the
world. Furthermore, while esoterics are admittedly a minority in any religious
tradition, their faith is no less immediate or moving. Indeed, for esoterics,
recognition of an all-embracing transcendent unity is not mere abstraction, but
the core of their belief. Not surprisingly, Schuon holds that the esoteric
dimension is the essential mystical core, without which, a religion would lose
its very life blood.
Secondly, the principle of religious unity is, for Bahá'ís, no
mere ethereal abstraction remote from the day to day experience of life. On the
contrary, this is one of the most basic and fundamental of all
Bahá'í beliefs. Even at the exoteric level, the principle of
religious unity is one that every Bahá'í, the world over, cares
deeply about. In fact, in many cases, this principle alone was the leading
cause of their conversion to the Bahá'í Faith.
The Problem of Initial Assumptions
A third and more serious criticism arises from certain metaphysical
considerations. According to this criticism, all theories which advocate
religious unity assume the existence of some ultimate reality, some privileged
absolute which lurks behind the "rightly" interpreted cultural and historical
manifestations of this supposed truth. Such theories seem to naively ignore the
post-modern contention that all conceptions of the truth are hopelessly
entangled in their respective linguistic, cultural and historical contexts.
"The challenge in the 'post-modern' human condition," as Purusottama Bilimoria
so aptly puts it, is the suggestion
that there is neither one "absolute" or "decisive" truth content (logos,
presence) in religion (contrary to the exclusivist presupposition), nor a
plurality of expressions or articulations inscripting the same deep
truth-content (contrary to the inclusivists assumption). Indeed, it argues that
all conceptions of truth are equally constructed artifacts, which have thus to
be contextualised and understood in the horizons of disparate and possibly
unique experiences, tradition and aspirations of each cultural group."
An even more serious threat to religious perspectivism is raised by Panikkar.
He argues against the perspectivist position which posits the existence of some
ultimate truth seen through a plurality of perceptions. He advocates instead,
the notion that truth itself is pluralistic. Obviously he does not hold "a
plurality of truths" for he insists that this would be contradictory. Instead,
Panikkar holds what he calls a non-dualist position which contends that reality
is fundamentally irreducible to some ultimate unity or monism.
Obviously, whether an ultimate truth exists or not, or whether truth is
unitary or pluralistic, are questions not open to being proven through the
appeal to empirical evidence or conclusive arguments. Each view has gathered
around it certain lines of reasoning which support its own perspective. It is
clear to many that those who favor one view over the other do so not on the
basis of any incontrovertible line of reasoning. Rather they do so on the basis
of certain presuppositions that bias them in one direction or the other. As
Huston Smith simply puts it, "Everything turns on which foot one comes down
Consequently, this debate seems to
be, at least, partly a matter of emphasis. To be more specific, on the one
hand, for those who emphasize differences, diversity is granted a privileged
position and any unitary features are seen as less important or superficial. On
the other hand, for those who presuppose the existence of some underlying
universal truth, unitary principles are given a privileged position while any
differences that may be encountered are considered secondary or
As I understand Schuon, this debate may have less to do with philosophical
issues and more to do with the tension that exists between esoteric and
exoteric perspectives. If this is true, radical pluralism belongs more to the
exoteric dimension, while views which advance religious unity belong more to
the esoteric dimension. Since for Schuon, these two dimensions of religion
represent deeply felt approaches to religious life, it is doubtful whether the
debate between radical pluralism and perspectivist views will ever be resolved.
In its favor, the Bahá'í concept of process perspectivism does
have the advantage of fostering, at least among Bahá'ís, a deep
appreciation and love for the world's religious traditions.
Bahá'u'lláh even encourages His followers to "Consort with the
followers of all religions in a spirit of friendliness and fellowship."
This attitude follows directly from the
Bahá'í doctrine of religious unity, for the adherents of the
world's religious traditions are one's brothers and sisters in an ancient and
progressively unfolding process of which the Bahá'í Faith is only
the most recent, and certainly not the last, development.
Resolving this issue is clearly beyond the scope of this thesis. Instead I
will close with Huston Smith's conclusion from his own defense of primordialism
(his defense of primordialism certainly applies to what I have called the
process perspectivism of the Bahá'í Faith):
Some thinkers are so occupied with these differences [among religious
traditions] that they dismiss claims of commonality as simply sloppy thinking,
yet identity within difference is as common an experience as life
affords. Green is not blue, yet both are light. A gold watch is not a gold
ring, but both are gold. Women are not men, but both are human....
... Blue is not red, but both are light. Exoterics can be likened to people who
hold that light isn't truly such, or at least that it is not light in its
purest form, unless it is of a given hue. Meanwhile academicians have become so
fearful that a hue will be overlooked or that some that are known will become
victimized -- marginalized is the going word -- that they deny the existence of
light itself. There is nothing that hues instance and embody; nothing, in
deconstructionist language, that texts signify. All that exists is an endless
stream of signifiers.
The primordialist believes there is such a thing as light in itself -- pure
white light that summarizes all the wave-lengths -- and that it is the Light of
Smith's closing sentence echoes the words of Bahá'u'lláh when, in
referring to the religions of the world, He writes "These principles and laws,
these firmly-established and mighty systems, have proceeded from one Source,
and are rays of one Light."
 This initial definition is largely taken
from Raimundo Panikkar's essay "Religious Pluralism: The Metaphysical
Challenge," in Religious Pluralism, ed. Leroy S. Rouner. Vol. V of
Boston University Studies in Philosophy and Religion (Notre Dame:
University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), pp. 97-115.
 Towards a World Theology: Faith and
the Comparative History of Religion. Louisville, KY: Westminster Press,
1981., pp. 4-5.
 "A Retrospective Glance of My Work," in
The Worldwind in Culture, ed. by David W. Musser and Joseph L. Price
(Bloomington: Meyer Stone, 1988) and qtd. by Michael LaFargue in "Radically
Pluralist, Thoroughly Critical," Journal of the American Academy of
Religion, Vol. 60, no. 4 (Winter 1992), p. 694.
 "Social Change and the Mirrors of
Tradition: The Bahá'ís of Yazd," in Heshmat Moayyad, ed. The
Bahá'í Faith and Islam, Proceedings of a Symposium, McGill
University, March 23-25, 1984 (Ottawa, Canada: Association for
Bahá'í Studies, 1990), pp. 25-55.
 Excerpts from the Writings of the
Guardian on the Bahá'í Life, comp. by The Universal House of
Justice (n.p.: National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of
Canada, n. d.), p. 12.
 From a letter written on behalf of the
Guardian to an individual believer, 7/10/1939, in Hornby, Lights of
 The Promised Day is Come
(Wilmette, IL: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1980), pp. 108. For
similar references see The World Order of Bahá'u'lláh, pp.
 Towards a World Theology, pp.
 The World Order of
Bahá'u'lláh, p. 41, underlining mine.
 Selections from the Writings of
'Abdu'l-Bahá (Haifa, Israel: Bahá'í World Centre,
1978), p. 291, #225, underlining mine.
 "Religious Pluralism: The
Metaphysical Challenge," in Religious Pluralism, ed. Leroy S. Rouner,
Vol. V of Boston University Studies in Philosophy and Religion (Notre
Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), p. 109.
 Ibid., p. 108.
 The Transcendent Unity of
Religions, pp. 7-60.
 Fragile Universe (New York:
Barnes and Noble, 1979), pp. 79-92.
 "A Problem for Radical (onto-theos)
Pluralism," Sophia, Vol. 30, No. 1 (1991), p. 31.
 Beyond the Post-Modern Mind
(New York: Crossroad, 1982), p. 35.
 Lawh-i-Dunya, in Tablets of
Bahá'u'lláh, p. 87.
 Beyond the Post-Modern Mind
(New York: Crossroad, 1982), p. 35; and "Philosophy, Theology, and the
Primordial Claim," Cross Currents, Vol. 38, no. 3 (Fall 1988), p.
 Epistle to the Son of the Wolf
(Wilmette, IL: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1976), p. 13.