Religion in the Modern World

Celebrating Pluralism and Diversity

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Keith Ward
  • Cambridge, England: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , March
     220 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Keith Ward is a household name in philosophical and theological circles, having written some forty books on all major topics in philosophy and theology. I began reading Ward some thirty-five years ago, especially his works on comparative philosophy and theology. Religion in the Modern World continues his reflections in the same disciplines, this time focusing on one of the most urgent and vexing themes of our time, namely, religious pluralism. Ward succinctly states the two basic theses of his book: “My general conclusion will be that diversity in religion is natural and good, and that there are rational ways of discriminating between religious truth-claims” (1). Stated thus, the two theses sound plain and simple, but when placed against the background of modern philosophy and theology, their evidence has been vigorously contested, and Ward has to make a grand tour of modern and contemporary thought to prove them. He does so in thirty-six brief chapters, divided into six parts.  

To show that diversity in religion is natural and good, against David Hume’s contention that a plurality of religions as tribal allegiances inevitably leads to intolerance and violence, Ward begins with a description of the nature of religion (part 1). He agrees with Emile Durkheim’s sociological construction of religion but notes that it takes into account only one aspect of religion—namely, the behavioral aspect, which includes ritual, ethics, and institutional elements—and undervalues the two other aspects of religion—namely, doctrine and experience. Ward is cognizant of Ninian Smart’s analysis of the seven dimensions of religion—doctrinal, mythological, ethical, ritual, experiential, institutional, and material—and Eric Sharpe’s fourfold division—existential, intellectual, institutional, and ethical—but he believes that his threefold categorization is sufficient to make his point that diversity in religion is a natural and good thing. Diversity in religion is natural because each religion possesses its own mythic and symbolic expressions of a particular transcendent experience that are context-dependent, unsystematic, and interpretable in diverse ways; it is a good thing because religion, as rooted in spiritual experience, is oriented to doing good and avoiding evil.  

Ward proceeds to examine how various philosophers and theologians have acknowledged and resolved this issue of religious diversity since modernity. The first trend is the perennial philosophy, as represented by Aldous Huxley, Frithjof Schuon, and Huston Smith (part 2). Ward finds its solution to the problem of religious diversity by affirming the existence of a primordial common core in all religions both historically unsustainable and internally incoherent since it represents only one strand of philosophy (the Advaita Vedanta) and the alleged common core is itself variously interpreted. Undermining the claims of the perennial philosophy school is what Ward calls “the Critical Turn,” that is, the challenge of the Enlightenment to religious uniformity and the consequent emphasis on religious pluralism. 

In the third part, Ward reviews the impact of religious pluralism on the thought of Rudolf Bultmann, Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Schleiermacher, G. W. Friedrich Hegel, and Ernst Troetsch. He lists the various factors that have given rise to religious pluralism: the scientific method and worldview, the critical study of ancient religious texts, the advocacy of an autonomous morality, the assertion of the right to freedom of thought and religion, the growth of a global outlook, the stress on experience as the basis of religious revelation and beliefs, the genesis of evolutionary and Idealist philosophy, and the development of historical consciousness (120). Part 4 evaluates the so-called “Pluralist Hypothesis,” as advanced by John Hick and Wilfred Cantwell Smith. Part 5 discusses the contributions of five Catholic theologians to the debate on religious pluralism: Karl Rahner, Hans Küng, Raimon Panikkar, Paul Knitter, and Peter Phan. The final part offers Ward’s reflections on the Buddhist-Christian dialogue.  

Religion in the Modern World is a veritable wide-ranging scholarly tour de force. Only a scholar of Ward’s superb and vast mastery of both philosophy and theology can produce such a work. The clarity of his exposition along with his jargon-free style prevents readers from missing the forest for the trees. Throughout his analysis of various thinkers, and they are many and complex, he maintains a sharp and steady focus on his two theses about religious pluralism—namely, that it is unavoidable and that it does not lead to epistemological relativism. Religious diversity and pluralism is something, to quote the subtitle of the book, worth “celebrating.”  

On the other hand, it does not lead to the extreme form of the “pluralist hypothesis,” all-too-common today, that holds that all religions are equally valid spiritual paths. This, of course, raises the vexing question of how to adjudicate competing truth-claims. Ward’s answer proposes two principles that to my mind are illuminating. First, it is impossible to judge the truth of a particular religion as a whole, to declare the superiority of one religion over another, to claim that only one (usually mine) is true, or to assert that all religions are equally valid. This is so because religion is not only a complex of doctrines—it is of course that—but also a complex of behaviors and personal experiences of a transcendent reality. What can and should be evaluated is a particular doctrine, a particular behavior, and a particular experience of a particular religion. Second, there is a distinction between “truth” and “salvation,” the latter being possible without the knowledge of and assent to all the truths taught by a particular religion.  

Thus, a religion can be a way of salvation, understood differently by each religion, even if it has some or even many errors. Ward’s theology of religion is neither exclusivist nor pluralist nor inclusivist, as these three expressions are currently understood. Religious diversity and pluralism is something to be celebrated; no one religion can make an exclusive claim to truth and salvation, and all religions must learn from others to improve their doctrines, behaviors, and experiences. I am deeply gratified that Ward sees that these principles are exemplified in my own work, as he explains in chapter 34. It is not because of this convergence of views that I recommend this book with the greatest enthusiasm for a course on the theology of religion. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Peter C. Phan is the Ignacio Ellcuria Chair of Catholic Social Thought, Georgetown University. 

Date of Review: 
July 29, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Keith Ward is Professor of Religious Studies at University of Roehampton.


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