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The great assumption of pluralism

Sunday, 06 November, 2005

In one of his books called The Rainbow of Faiths Professor Hick brilliantly explains his point of view by asking readers—as I'll ask you now—to look closely at a famous sketch first used by psychologists in early experiments on optical illusions:

As you can see, the sketch shows an ambiguous figure drawn to look like a duck (facing left) and a rabbit (facing right). Give yourself a moment to see both.

Now imagine conducting the following experiment. If you showed this picture to people who knew ducks but had never seen rabbits, what would they see? Obviously, a duck. If you showed it to a group that had seen rabbits but not ducks, they of course would see a rabbit.

Which group is correct, ask John Hicks: the duck group or the rabbit group? Both are correct, he says. Both groups are entirely justified in describing this image variously as a duck or a rabbit. The ‘contradiction’ between the opinions if a matter of perception rather than substance.

So far, so good.

John Hick then compares religious truth with this optical illusion. He says that the great religions of the world contain merely perceptions of Reality rather than actual descriptions of Reality. Each perspective is culturally determined. Just as the duck-knowing group could only see a duck and the rabbit-knowing group a rabbit, so Muslims see Allah, Hindus see Brahman and Christians see the Trinity. No one is ‘wrong’. It is just a cultural perception. It is all ‘ducks’ and ‘rabbits’.

When I first read Professor Hick's argument I felt it was compelling. It seemed to provide what so many of us would like: a way of affirming all religions as true despite their apparent contradctions. Each religion could be a valid ‘perception’ of Reality without actually possessing that Reality.

But then something dawned on me that completely changed my mind. What John Hick does not make explicit is that there is actually a third party in this duck-rabbit analogy. There is not just the duck-knowing group and the rabbit-knowing group; there is also the person conducting the experiment. And that person does know the truth. In reality, the picture is not a sketch of a duck or a rabbit. It is actually an image drawn to look like both a duck and a rabbit. The unknowing subjects in the experiment may be justified in merely having a perception of the picture, but the person showing the image is under no such illusion. He knows full well that the sketch is a trick, carefully designed to produce what psychologists call ‘rival-schemata ambiguity’—an illusion.

Without realising it, John Hick's analogy succeeds in exposing an embarassing, and rarely admitted, assumption of the pluralist point of view. Pluralism patronizingly suggests that although the world religions are each entitled to their perceptions of Reality (believing in Christ, Buddha, etc.), the truth of the situation, apparently known only to the pluralist, is that this Reality is ultimately unknowable, and that all religious perceptions are in fact illusions. In Professor Hick's analogy, then, the hidden assumption is that pluralists are like the ones conducting the expedriment. They are the only ones ‘in the know’.

Pluralism ends up claiming to have discovered a greater truth that none of the religions has observed before, and then it suggests that the ‘lesser truths’ individual religions thought they could see are in fact cultural illusions—just ducks and rabits. This is a big call. By describing religions as true in a manner none of them has affirmed before and false in all the ways they have always affirmed, pluralism assumes an intellectual high ground that is postively breathtaking.

John Dickson, A Spectator's Guide to World Religions, Sydney South: BlueBottle (2004) 233-235.

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Hear hear John!

He also explains this point in “A Sneaking Suspicion” using a picture of people crawling all over an elephant. Each of them is blindfolded, and is announcing what they think they are holding onto. The blindfolded man holding the ear is saying “palm leaf”, the one holding onto the tail says, “rope”, the one with the leg announces “tree” and so on. As John has explained in this new book, this is essentially the claim of popular pluralism - everyone just percieves a different part of the elephant.

This of course implies that out of every civilisation in history, out of every system of belief, pluralists alone can see the whole elephant. How arrogantly narcissistic!

Furthermore, popular pluralism is intellectually bankrupt! It completely denies the inherent essential differences between religions over their conception of God (or not-god). If one religion says there is a God and one says there is absolutely not, how could they possibly be two perceptions of the same thing?! If one religion says God is triune and another says this is blasphemy, how can both be correct?! Popular pluralism is just the option for people who can’t be bothered to apply their intellect or heart to the matter.

Posted by Joanna on 06 November, 2005 8:55 PM

Thats a great book. Actually, everything Dickson writes is excellent. Rob Forsyth gave his evangelism book a huge rap in this months Southern Cross…

Yes, I’d like to read that one some time soon—read the Introduction and first chapter online and it was very helpful.

Fantastic quote. Thanks for sharing it.

I like his style but worry that actual descriptions of reality are still always and only perceptions of reality, I know my description of reality in my mind five years ago was wrong compared to now. But God is good and knows what we need as sheep in his flock.

Posted by adam on 07 November, 2005 6:35 PM


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