The role of religious epistemology in inter-religious dialogue

From the dawn of civilization, a multitude of religious has developed each very complex. These great differences among religions make it difficult to find a least common denominator or to talk at length of religion in ge
From the dawn of civilization, a multitude of religious has developed each very complex. These great differences among religions make it difficult to find a least common denominator or to talk at length of religion in general. On the other hand, focusing on just one specific religion often causes us to ignore or underestimate some of the very broad traits that religions seem to share. The fact remains that we will make no headway into the question of what makes a specific religion a religion if we do not seek some characteristics common to all religions.
Religion is usually associated with the supernatural or the divine.505 However, the notion of a supernatural realm does not occur in the non-theistic schools of Buddhism and functions in very different ways, say, in Taoism, Hinduism, and Islam. These shortcomings suggest that religion is notoriously difficult to define. To me, religion is any action taken through every aspect of our being to release us from our weakness or imperfection, and bring us closer to the divine reality. In other words, it is a human inner desire or activity to unite with an absolute being.
The examination of the intellectual dimension of religion that is, its key beliefs is most beneficial when it is guided and informed. Since epistemology is the theory of knowledge, one would therefore expect epistemological discussions of religion to concentrate on the question whether one could have knowledge of religious beliefs. Religious epistemology is simple to say that it is the epistemology of distinctively religious beliefs, but that will not be helpful in the absence of a definition of religious beliefs.
Philosophers of religion might consider the epistemology of religious belief, pondering questions about the sources and justifications of religious knowledge. Fundamental questions regarding the nature of knowledge are likely to arise in any culture. After all, everyone has some stake in distinguishing truth from error, wisdom from ignorance, and the path to knowledge from the path to ignorance. Epistemologists have discussed, in addition to the defining conditions and the sources of knowledge, the extent of human knowledge. They have asked how far human knowledge can extend. Many philosophers find it obvious that we know at least some things, if only things about personal experiences or household physical objects. Others have claimed, however, that we really have no knowledge. Such philosophers admit that people typically feel confident that they have some knowledge, but these philosophers insist that our apparent cases of knowledge are mere illusions. Many epistemologists aim not to set knowledge beyond our reach or to escape the quest for knowledge but rather to make many of our ordinary claims to knowledge more secure by explaining knowledge. They seek to explain what knowledge consists in and how we get it.506
Therefore, a good deal of the task of general epistemology is to understand the nature of the various truth-relevant merits which beliefs can possess, the necessary and sufficient conditions for beliefs to possess those merits, and the virtues of mind and practice requisite and apt for their presence merits such as being reliably formed, being warranted, being entitled, being scientific, being rational, being justified and indeed being true.
Epistemology in Western philosophical tradition has until recently offered a prominent definition of knowledge that analyzes knowledge into three essential components: justification, truth, and belief. According to this analysis, propositional knowledge is, by definition, justified true belief. Epistemologists typically focus on propositional knowledge. Knowledge that something is the case, as opposed to knowledge of how to do something. The content of propositional knowledge can be expressed in a proposition, that is, what is meant by a declarative sentence. Knowledge how to do something is by contrast, a skill or competence in performing a certain task. Within the last few decades, philosophers have discovers that these three conditions are not really sufficient for knowledge; something else is required. Genuine knowledge requires not only truth and belief, but also the satisfaction of the belief condition be appropriately related to the satisfaction of the truth condition. That is, on the traditional approach, genuine knowledge requires that a knower have an “adequate indication” that a believed proposition is true. The required “adequate indication”507 of truth, according to Plato, Kant, and many other philosophers, is evidence indicating that a proposition is true. These philosophers thus hold that knowledge must be based on evidence, or justifying reason.
The kind of justification crucial to knowledge is called epistemic justification. Even if knowledge requires justification, a justified belief can be false. In allowing for justified false beliefs, contemporary epistemologists endorse fallibilism about justification. Reformed epistemologists contend that belief in the existence of God can, in some circumstances, have an epistemic status high enough to render it worthy of acceptance even if it has no support from the arguments of natural theology or from any other beliefs. The views of Alston and Mavrodes are sometimes said to display an affinity with Reformed epistemology, and Nicholas Wolterstorff has made significant contributions to its development. But Plantinga has clearly been the leading contemporary advocate of this school of thought in religious epistemology. During the earlier phase of their development, Plantinga concentrated on defending the view that theistic belief can be in certain conditions, is justified or rationally held even in the absence of any propositional evidence or supporting argument.508
For the conviction that theistic belief is properly basic, foundationalists carry out a reconstructive project that would put our revised doxastic structures on foundations so firm that they could withstand rather than ignore skeptical challenges. That is, for the classical foundationlist theistic belief requires support from propositional evidence or argument if it is to be rationally or justifiably held. However, it is fairly clear that belief in God’s existence does not satisfy this criterion; it is neither self-evident nor incorrigible nor evident to the sense for humans at any time in this life.
The question of justification attracts philosophers especially in contemporary epistemology. And controversy of this question focuses on the meaning of ‘justification’ as well as on the substantive conditions of a belief’s being justified in a way appropriate to knowledge. William Alston, for instance, has introduced a non-deontological normative concept of justification that relies mainly on the notion of what is epistemically good from the view-point of maximizing truth and minimizing falsity. Alston link epistemic goodness to a belief’s being based on adequate grounds in the absence of overriding reason to the contrary. But for some epistemologists “Epistemic justification” means simply “evidential support” of certain sort.509 To say that s is epistemically justifiable to some extent for you is, on this view, just to say that s is supportable to some extent by your overall evidential reason. According to epistemologist, knowledge entails beliefs, so that I cannot know that such and such is the case unless I believe that such and such is the case.
Robert Audi mentioned that knowledge arises in experience. It is constituted by conclusively justified true belief, meaning that: the believer may be justified by psychological certain of the true proposition in question and this proposition is so well-grounded as to be itself propositionally certain. And knowledge constitute by such belief may be called epistemic certainty. When we come to religious knowledge, Audi says that religious propositions are simply beyond the scope of human knowledge. But the point is why would it be thought that no religious propositions are known? The most common ground for holding this view is namely, that religious propositions, such as that God exists, cannot be known either a priori or on the basis of experience. The concept of justification or evidence would occur with the concept of belief in a more complex analysis of the concept of knowledge.510
In recent decades, questions of knowledge seem to have been marginalized by question of justification. As a matter of fact, however, epistemological discussion of religious belief, at least since the Enlightenment has tended to focus, not on the question whether religious belief has warrant, but whether it is justified. More precisely, it has tended to focus on the question whether those properties are enjoyed by theistic belief - the belief that there exists a person like the God of traditional Christianity, Judaism, and Islam: an almighty, all knowing, wholly benevolent and loving spiritual person who has created the world. The main epistemological question about religious belief, therefore, has been the question whether or not religious belief in general and theistic belief in particular is rational or rationally acceptable, or whether it is justified?
In its primary sense, rationality is a normative concept that philosophers have generally tried to characterize in such a way that, for any action, belief, or desire, if it is rational we ought to choose it. Rationality is the use of reason to reach a certain level of reasonableness or unreasonableness. Many positive characterizations of rational beliefs have been proposed by beliefs that are either self-evident or derived from self-evident beliefs by a reliable procedure and beliefs that are consistent with the overwhelming majority of one’s beliefs.511 Analytic epistemology in the twentieth century was conducted as if there were a part from truth itself - just one truth-relevant merit in beliefs, that one typically called either “justification or rationality;”512 and since there was a great deal of disagreement on the answer to that question, there was a great flowering of theories of justification, or theories of rationality.
According to Nicholas Wolterstorff, there are a large number of distinct truth-relevant merits in beliefs, and that neither “Justification” nor “rationality”513 picks out single such merit, both are highly ambiguous terms, each picking out a number of distinct merits. Religious beliefs are formed or evoked by experience of some sort, or by believing what is said in some discourse, or by reflection on the implications of some complex of beliefs that one has previously acquired. Here, we notice that there are no rational activities to understand or justify the experience.
Richard Swinburne considered the nature of actual belief. He saw how in a sense all beliefs given rise to action and must be based on evidence. But he knows that not all beliefs are rational beliefs. For him a beliefs will fail to be rational if it is based on evidence in the wrong way or if it is based on the wrong sort of evidence. According to Swinburne beliefs are rational in so far as they are based on investigation which was, in the believer’s view, adequate, and if the believer believes it to be rational. Swinburne understand by religious beliefs as about transcendent reality, including his belief about whether or not there is a God, and his beliefs about what properties God has (what God is like) and what actions he has performed.514
According to John Hick, the issue is not whether it can be established as an item of indubitable public knowledge that God (or the divine or the Transcendent) exists, or most probably exists, but whether it is rational for those who experience some of life’s moments theistically to believe that God exists, and to proceed to conduct their lives on that basis. Hick looks at a rational belief in general way. For him “belief” can mean a proposition believed or it can be defined as an act or state of believing. The idea of evidence normally presupposes a gap between an observed fact, or body of facts, and an inferred conclusion. Therefore, our ordinary moment - to moment perceptual beliefs contradict the principle that all rational believing must be based upon adequate evidence. It is not that they are based upon inadequate evidence, but rather that the model of evidence-inference-belief does not apply here. Ordinary perceptual beliefs arise directly out of our experience, and it is entirely appropriate, proper, and rational to form these beliefs in this way. The relationship between experience and belief has been much debated in recent work in the philosophy of religion. This discussion has focused upon specifically theistic belief and Hick discusses also in these terms and his argument is that it is rational to believe in the reality of God.
Alvin Plantinga argues on these manifestation-experiences that they are properly basic.515 That is to say, it is as rational for religious persons to hold these basic religious beliefs as it is for all of us to hold our basic perceptual beliefs. But, more basically, it is the biblical assumption translated into philosophical terms. According to Plantinga this experience is what justifies me in holding (the belief) that is the ground of my justification, and by extension, the ground of the belief itself. He then applies this principle to religious beliefs.
In philosophy, experience is generally what we perceive by the senses what we learn from others, or whatever comes from external sources or from inner reflection. In the sense, experience is associated with observation and experiment. Empiricism stresses that our knowledge must be based on experience, but rationalism claims that experience is a potential source of error and prefers rational certainty to mere empirical generalization. In ordinary usage, for every experience there must be something experienced that is independent of the subject of experience. But in philosophy, the relation between experience as a state of consciousness and independent objects of experience becomes a focus of debate. There are many different kinds of experiences, but it is religious experiences that interest me here.
From the point of view of epistemology the modifications of consciousness consisting our apparently perceptual experience are of importantly different kinds. In addition to true perceptions there are misperceptions, illusions, and hallucinations. Therefore, if anyone misled by any of these forms of perceptual error, he or she is then deluded. In each case the delusion consists in a mistaken implicit belief about the cause of the experience: Applying this concept of delusion to the realm of religious experience, we have to ask whether those who assume that their experience of living in God’s presence is caused by their being in God’s presence are believing truly or are, on the contrary, under a delusion.
In modern philosophy of mind a major theme which bears on many theoretical issues, concerns the alleged privacy of an experience as an event knowable only to its possessor and the possibility of public access to that experience. There is much philosophical debate concerning precisely how perception is to be analyzed. In particular, questions are raised concerning the status of the phenomenon. But there is general agreement that in perception, objects present themselves to us in ways that enable us to know them. Similarly, in religious experience God presents himself in ways that enable us to know him and his actions. For Alston there are, it seems, important differences between ordinary perceptual or sense experience and religious experience. Sense perception is a common experience, whereas religious experience is less common, perhaps, even rare, sense perception yields a great deal of information about the world, whereas religious experience yields apparently little information about God, all humans have the capacity for sense perception, but many seem not to have the capacity for religious experience. These differences, however, do not show that religious experience has a structure unlike perception. For one thing, neither the frequency of an experience nor the amount of information it yields tells us anything about its structure.
On the other hand, the limitation of the rationalist way is that the only truths capable of being strictly proved are analytic and ultimately tautological. But we cannot by logic alone demonstrate any matter of fact and existence; these must be known through experience. For sure if nothing were given through experience in its various modes, we should never have anything to reason about. This is as true in religion as in other fields. If God exists, God is not an idea but a reality outside us, in order to be known to men and women, God must therefore become manifest in some way within their experience. This conclusion is in line with the contemporary revolt against the rationalist assumptions which have dominated much of western philosophy since the time of Descartes.516 Descartes held that we can properly be said to know only truths that are self-evident or that can be reached by logical inferences from self-evident premises.
Therefore, those who stress faith and attack reason often place a great deal of emphasis on religious experience. However, religious experience is by no means a purely emotional “happening”; rather, it involves concepts and beliefs about the being that is experienced. If we tried to separate religious experiences from such concepts and beliefs - from the religious belief-system, as we shall call it - then there would be no way saying who or what is that is experienced, or of explaining what sort of difference the experience ought to make to the person who has it. However, such a religious belief system needs to be understood; at least to some degree - it is hard to see how understanding it is not going to involve the use of reason.
For Rationalisms, in order for a religious belief-system to be properly and rationally accepted, it must be possible to prove that the belief-system is true. Rationalism in this sense implies a reliance on reason, or intelligence, in deciding our beliefs and actions. The central idea of strong rationalism was stated forcefully by W. K. Clifford. According to his opinion, no religious belief-system is capable of meeting the high standard of proof that should govern all of our believing, and so a reasonable (and moral) person must do without religious beliefs. Among the objections to Christian belief, as well as to Judaic and Muslim, Characteristic of the modern intelligentsia is the objection that it is no longer rational, if ever it was, to believe that God exists. Therefore, the rational person will have to make his way in the world without supposing that there exists any God in whom he could trust.517
However, according to Nicholas Wolterstorff, to believe in God is our fundamental human obligation. Central to Christianity, Judaism, and Islam alike is the conviction that we as human beings are called to believe in God to trust in him, to rely on him, to place our confidence in him. Central also is the conviction that only by believing in God can the deepest stirrings of the human heart be satisfied. Duty and fulfillment here coalesce. The rationality of trusting someone presupposes the rationality of believing that person exists.
John Locke was among the first to formulate articulately the evidentialist challenge to theistic belief. Reason is reasoning for Locke, and clearly he thinks of it as one among others of our belief-forming processes. Faith is another belief-forming process. It, by contrast, consists in accepting something “as coming from God.”518 However, for Locke it still belongs to reason to judge of the truth of its being a revelation, and of the signification of the words wherein it is delivered.
For evidentialist, one’s belief that God exists is rational only if it is formed or sustained by good inference by inferring it from others of one’s beliefs, which in fact provide adequate evidence for it. But, Wolterstorff, see no reason what so ever to suppose that by the criterion offered the evidentialist challenge is tenable. He see no reason to suppose that people who hold as one of their immediate beliefs that God exists always have adequate reason to surrender that belief or ought to believe that they do. However, for him those abstract and highly general theses of evidentialism no longer look very interesting, once we regard them in the light of the criterion offered. Therefore, for him the fact that it is not rational for some person to believe that God exists does not follow that he ought to give up that belief.
But can we accept the Principle of Credulity? One problem is that whereas there is a fundamental uniformity about the way we report both ordinary perceptual experiences and the beliefs about objects of those experiences, there is quite a diversity of reports about religious experiences and the claim based on them. Person give incompatible descriptions of the Reality experienced. Therefore, where perceptions yield conflicting testimony, we must turn to other experiences and rational arguments to determine the truth of the various claims. That is, where there are different accounts, additional considerations must be introduced to help decide which, if any, of the religious experiences are veridical. Although the reports provide a prima facie ground for their acceptance, not all beliefs based on such experiences are true. Just as we at times doubt perceptual claims for good reason, we might do the same for claims based on religious experience.
According to Hick, religion constitutes our varied human response to transcendent reality. Religious experience then is structured by religious beliefs which are implicit within religious experience. But the question is if this complex of experience and beliefs that takes place in different shapes within the different traditions, is to be regarded simply as a human creation or as our response to a transcendent reality, even if a response whose particular forms always involve the creative activity of the human imagination. Of course the problem of terminology is obvious as we see in many parts of philosophy, and without explanatory gloss none of the available descriptive labels for these two possibilities is entirely adequate.
Much of the philosophical discussion of religious diversity continues to centre on the work of John Hick.519 He is not interested in the question of what can justifiably be affirmed in the face of such diversity, rather, he is primarily concerned with the question of which justified response is most reasonable. Moreover, on this question, he leaves no doubt as to his opinion:
519 See John Hick, An Interpretation of Religion: Human response to the Transcendent, (New Haven: Yale University and London: Macmillan press, 1989), 172.
religious pluralism is by far the most plausible explanation for the pervasive religious diversity we encounter.
Many Westerners will best understand the emergence of inclusivism and pluralism in terms of the history of Christianity. For most of its history, Christianity has been resolutely exclusivist. In late antiquity, it was a new religion, struggling to establish itself in the face of criticism and persecution. It is not surprising to find it making exclusive claims on behalf of its charismatic founder, Jesus of Nazareth. Of course, Christianity is not the only religion to have fostered exclusivist attitudes. In their more militant movements, Muslims have done the same. Some Jews cherish an ethnically exclusive identity as God’s chosen people, and some Hindus revere the Vedas as a source of absolute truth, Buddhists often see in the teachings of Gautama the only dharma that can liberate humans from illusion and suffering.
Hick has set forth a philosophically sophisticated pluralistic hypothesis that may avoid problems of this sort.520 As he sees it, each of the major religious traditions offers a path to salvation or liberation that involves a transformation of human existence from self-centeredness to reality- centeredness.
Religious plurality is simply a fact. There are religious traditions that differ deeply in terms of their doctrines, practices, institutions, scriptures, experiences, and hope. According to pluralism, a single ultimate religious reality is being differently experienced and understood in all the major religious traditions; they all, as far as the philosophers can tell, offer equally effective paths to salvation or liberation.
According to Harold Coward, Judaism is an appropriate tradition in which to begin the stay of religious pluralism and the world religions. The experience of being a minority group in other cultures, which becoming more common place for all the world religions as religious pluralism spreads, has been the norm for Judaism for countless generations. From the biblical period to the present, Judaism has had to formulate its beliefs and practices in the face of challenges from other cultures and religions. The viewpoint of the modern Jew opens the way for relations with Christianity, Islam, and perhaps Hinduism; however, Buddhism - especially Mahayana Buddhism may prove to be in a separate category. The Buddhist consciousness in which no transcendent God is recognized and the Mahayana awareness of the Divine in the
520 Ibid.
secular may be judged by the Jewish philosopher as a modern idolatry. Therefore, perhaps the most serious challenge for Judaism comes in its response to Buddhism. As long as a religion is founded on the experience of a transcendent God, Judaism seems to be able to enter into spiritual partnership with it. But if that experience does not hold true for the Buddhist - if it is not a transcendent God that is being experienced - can the Jew still embrace the Buddhist as a spiritual partner? This question has yet to be faced by Judaism.521
The relationship between Christianity and the other religions is one of the key issues in Christian self-understanding. Perhaps pluralism is so pressing a challenge because of the exclusivist missionary approaches adopted by Christianity over the past several hundred years.
In the rapidly expanding body of literature resulting from the encounter with other religions, many Christian theologians are concluding that Christian theology cannot continue to be formulated in isolation from the other religions, and that in fact future developments in Christian theology will be the direct result of serious dialogue with the other religions. Although the Churches are altering their ecclesiology so as to open the way for serious dialogue with other religions, the fundamental Christology that underlies traditional ecclesiology has not yet changed.
Through out the centuries the basic Islamic approach to other religions was to search for some fundamental structures that were harmonious with Islam but which lay hidden beneath the other religion’s deviations from true Islam: A major obstacle for understanding other religions was the lack of accurate information. However, Islam has essentially reached the truth toward which all other religions are evolving. Christianity, it seems, has also virtually reached this goal. It is possible that various nations or cultures will reach the truth in their own way. The Qur’an itself teaches that every community in every age has had its prophet. However, modern education will offer Muslims an opportunity to understand each religion in terms of its own culture, history, world view, and claims to truth. This will have an effect on Islamic self-perception.
Therefore, the religious pluralism of the modern world will force Islam, finding itself in much the same position as the other traditions, to come to grips with them rather provincial
521 See Harold Coward, Pluralism: Challenge to World Religions, Harold Coward, 1-12.
character of some of its past views of other religions.
According to Hinduism, there is one divine reality that manifests itself in many forms. The various religions are simply different revelations of the one divine reality. Hinduism sees itself as being a very open and tolerant religion. But because it asserts that the Vedas are the most perfect revelation of divine truth, Hinduism also sees itself as providing the criteria against which the revelations of all other religions must be tested. Nevertheless, the Hindu view that there is one Divine, which may be reached by many paths, has proven through out the centuries to be a powerful influence upon Hinduism’s interaction with the other religions.522 Therefore, the Hindu contribution to the modern challenge of religious pluralism is to encourage the inquiring spirit and devotion to truth that is larger than any individual tradition.
The Buddhist attitude to other religions has been described as “critical tolerance”523 combined with a missionary goal. Buddhism has demonstrated a remarkable degree of tolerance and flexibility throughout the course of its expansion. Unlike some other religious expansions, the spread of Buddhism has been accomplished more through the dissemination of ideas than by migration of peoples.
Buddhism rejects the worship of God or gods and the performance of religious rituals as a means to release. It also rejects speculations about ultimate beginnings, especially about whether the self and the world were eternal, and a number of speculations about the ultimate state of the self in the future. The tolerant but critical attitude of the Buddha toward the plurality of religious views is shaped into a rigorous philosophic approach by the Madhyamika Buddhists. If, as the Buddha discovered, the goal of religion is compassion, then, say the Madhyamika, the biggest obstacle to realizing that goal is attachment to our own religious beliefs in such a way as to make them absolute. Based on this understanding, the Madhyamika Buddhist’s attitude towards other religions is one of openness and indeed a “missionary desire”524 to enter into dialogue.
The inherent desire to conceptualize and share religious experience is too deeply ingrained in
522 Ibid., 63-80.
523 See K. N. Jayatilleke, The Buddhist Attitude to Other Religions (Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society, 1975). And see also Harold Coward Pluralism: Challenge to World Religions, 81.
524 See Harold Coward, Pluralism: Challenge to World Religions, 88.
human nature to render silence an acceptable answer. In fact the Madhyamika himself has been far from silent. His prescription of silence was only intended to apply to claims of absolute knowledge. As long as the limitation is honored, then discussion, including theological discussion, could take place.
The dialogical approach opens the way for the meeting of Christians with Jews, Muslims, and Hindus. However, the theocentric premise could become an obstacle to meaningful encounters with Buddhists and Advaita Vedantists. Therefore, an unresolved problem for all of these approaches is the Buddhist and even those with considerable exposure to Buddhism and Hinduism seem almost willfully to turn a blind eye to this problem. One possible exception might be found in Tillich’s formulation of the “god above gods” as the “ground of being.”525
Dialogue starts from the assumption that each religion has its absolute claims which cannot be relativized. No amount of reformulation will do away with the difference. But, by letting our theologizing be influenced by others we will be forced to greater honesty and deeper spirituality. The prerequisite for dialogue is not the harmonizing of all beliefs but the recognition that each spiritual person has a committed and absolute conviction, and that these convictions are different.
Therefore, the expected outcome is not the homogenization of particular religions but the mutual deepening of spiritual experience within each particular religion, which may lead to glimpses of a common transcendent reality. This shift in perspective had the effect of drawing attention to the universal nature of religious experience in its many different traditions. In addition to turning attention away from metaphysics, rationalism, or revelation, the focus on the humanity of religion has had the effect of highlighting some of the limitations in human nature that must be taken seriously in all future religion.
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Author:Nega Chewaka Tucho
Place of publication:Frankfurt am Main
Referee:Thomas M. Schmidt
Document Type:Doctoral Thesis
Date of Publication (online):2012/11/15
Year of first Publication:2012
Publishing Institution:Univ.-Bibliothek Frankfurt am Main
Granting Institution:Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Univ.
Date of final exam:2012/07/04
Release Date:2012/11/15
First Page:IV
Last Page:216
Diese Dissertation steht außerhalb der Universitätsbibliothek leider (aus urheberrechtlichen Gründen) nicht im Volltext zur Verfügung, die CD-ROM kann (auch über Fernleihe) bei der UB Frankfurt am Main ausgeliehen werden.
HeBIS PPN:347984517
Institutes:Katholische Theologie
Dewey Decimal Classification:200 Religion
Licence (German):License LogoArchivex. zur Lesesaalplatznutzung § 52b UrhG

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