“Epistemic Justification and Religious Truth Claims: Heim’s More Pluralistic Hypothesis” by Wm. Andrew Schwartz

In his book, Salvations: Truth and Difference in Religion,1 S. Mark Heim presents what he calls a “more pluralistic hypothesis.”2 Heim’s position, as its name alludes, is in many ways a response to John Hick’s infamous “pluralistic hypothesis” presented in An Interpretation of Religion.3 According to Heim, Hick’s pluralism is less pluralistic in that Hick posits a single ultimate reality and a single religious end shared by all traditions.

Heim’s pluralism, by contrast, proposes the possibility of a plurality of religious ends, and a plurality of justifications in support of diverse beliefs. Heim argues that by adopting what Nicholas Rescher calls “orientational pluralism” a person can rationally hold both that his own religious beliefs are superior to those of others and that others are justified in holding quite different beliefs.  In what follows, I will critically analyze Heim’s defense of “orientational pluralism,” and shed light on problematic implications of the position.  Furthermore, I will argue that Heim’s pluralism is far from pluralistic, and instead leads to the end of interreligious dialogue.

“General religious pluralism” is a position that affirms the truth or salvific quality of more than one religious tradition. While it is not necessary for religious pluralism to assert the equality of all religious traditions, this has been a stereotype of general pluralism. David Ray Griffin defines pluralism as two possible affirmations — one positive, the other negative. He writes:

“The negative affirmation is the rejection of religious absolutism, which means rejecting the a priori assumption that their own religion is the only one that provides saving truths and values to its adherents, that it alone is divinely inspired, that it has been divinely established as the only legitimate religion, intended to replace all others. The positive affirmation, which goes beyond the negative one, is the acceptance of the idea that there are indeed religions other than one’s own that provide saving truths and values to their adherents.”4

Common types of religious pluralism include: sociological, theological, ethical, metaphysical, and epistemological. These “types” of pluralism are different means by which one might affirm general religious pluralism. For example, in the case of theological religious pluralism, internal theological doctrines such as divine love can encourage adherents to move from absolutism to pluralism. In the case of Heim’s pluralism, it is best understood as epistemological religious pluralism.

For Heim, the move to pluralism is rooted in the postmodern epistemic assumption that objective knowledge is unattainable. From this assumption, Heim concludes that all knowledge and all beliefs are subjectively oriented. He asserts that the various ways of being orientated to the world have different ways of judging beliefs — a plurality of contextual forms of reasoning. For Heim, what is true is true. However, because people from different orientations do not always agree on how to decide what is true — since each group has its own means of epistemic justification — we are all equally justified in holding our beliefs. Heim writes,

“In summary, orientational pluralism insists there is only one reality and we are trying to know it. It is not committed to regarding other substantive views as equally valid, only as tenable from different perspectives. What is fragmented is not truth but justification or warranted assertability. The justification offered by a philosophy may be orientationally limited in appeal, but the claims themselves can be universal and unrestricted (Rescher, 1985, 190). People who rationally hold contradictory views from different orientations are each justified in thinking the other wrong. ‘We can only pursue the truth by cultivating our truth’ (Rescher 1985, 199). Philosophical positions are not opinions but judgments.”5

This summary, in which Heim demonstrates his deep indebtedness to Nicholas Rescher, provides an incredible amount of substance in just a few sentences. Consequently, it might prove helpful to look more closely at this summary and its philosophical commitments.

First, Heim states that there is only one reality. Understanding his commitment to metaphysical realism is the first step in understanding his orientational pluralism. It seems Heim is also presupposing a correspondence theory of truth, which means for Heim to say that there is only one reality, is also to say that there is only one truth. Therefore, conflicting truth claims are either not conflicting or at least one of them is not true. As Heim writes, “Reincarnation takes place or it does not. Jesus rose from the dead or did not.”6 This conception of truth and reality is not essentially pluralistic.

What makes Heim’s position a “more pluralistic hypothesis” is not his theory of truth, but his theory of justification. It is this commitment to realism and a correspondence theory that saves Heim from falling into sheer relativism.

Because there is only one reality, Heim contends that incompatible views cannot be equally true. They can, however, both be reasonable or justifiable. As Heim states, “what is fragmented is not truth but justification.”7 Persons from diverse orientations often have different starting points. Therefore, even if identical logic was applied in two different circumstances, diverse conclusions can still arise.

Imagine two people who begin a road trip; one in LA, the other in New York. Both people follow the same directions (e.g. drive 30 miles north, etc.), yet the two will end up in quite different places. This realization may be utterly obvious, yet it is important to consider. In the example, diverse results do not occur as a matter of following a different set of rules or directions, but from having different starting points.

Similarly, those using the same logic from different cognitive orientations will come to different conclusions. Not only so, but these diverse orientations also have different means of justification, which means that even if they had a shared starting point, there diverse forms of rationality may lead to divergent conclusions.

Again, imagine two people who begin a road trip, both starting from the same location. One uses a compass; the other uses landmarks. With different means of navigation, the two may start in the same place, but take very different routes. In this example, it is important that the two travelers are not headed toward a single destination. For, according to Heim, it is possible to conceive of different religions as different paths to different destinations or “religious ends.” Here, the different means of navigation can be seen as analogous to different forms of justification, rationality, and conceptions of truth.

The rest of the article is located here.

Picture from: By ReligijneSymbole.svg from Wikimedia Commons

1 S. Mark Heim, Salvations: Truth and Difference in Religion (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1995)

2 Heim, Salvations, 129

3 John Hick, An Interpretation of Religion: Human Responses to the Transcendent (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989)

4 David Ray Griffin, Deep Religious Pluralism (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press), 3

5 Heim, Salvations, 137

6 Heim, Salvations, 155

7 Heim, Salvations, 137

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3 thoughts on ““Epistemic Justification and Religious Truth Claims: Heim’s More Pluralistic Hypothesis” by Wm. Andrew Schwartz

  1. Good work here. Gives me a whole new perspective on the issue of plurality in religion.

  2. Thank you for this thought-provoking analysis of Heim’s approach to an inter-religious dialogue. I too find such orientational pluralism of “many religions, many salvations” challenging. I think that Heim’s argument against John Hick puts him in the same seat of what some may call “creeping imperialism” in theology. Even the word Salvation becomes problematic in the West’s obsession with its appropriation of what may appear as incompatible truths from religious/philosophical perspective of the other. The good news is that most people rarely search for a penultimate religious experience but rather look into mystical, symbolic, ethical-practical or comparative meaning in their dialogue with the neighbor of another tradition, and there are many other pluralistic models for that.

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