Personal or Non-Personal Divinity: A New Pluralist Approach

Abstract

Religious disagreement – the existence of inconsistent religious views – is familiar and widespread. Among the most fundamental issues of such disagreement is whether to characterise the divine as personal or non-personal. On most other religious issues, the diverse views seem to presuppose some view on the personal/non-personal issue. In this essay, I address a particular question arising from disagreement over this issue. Let an exclusivist belief be a belief that a doctrine d on an issue is true, and that doctrines on the issue that differ from d are false. Assume that for at least some people, there is no epistemic reason to prefer any one exclusivist view on the personal/non-personal question. This might be because disagreements act as defeaters for disputants’ beliefs, or because someone comes at the question without already holding a belief on the matter, and finds each view equally plausible. In these circumstances, is it still possible to engage with particular traditions in a realist, truth-seeking way? I answer that it is, arguing for a new pluralist approach to the personal/non-personal issue. By ‘pluralist’, I mean an approach that reinterprets a doctrine d on a given issue to be consistent with doctrines on the issue that differ from d. I start with probably the best-known pluralist account of religion, that of John Hick. After presenting his account I identify a problem that it faces which any pluralist account must address, one that has clear relevance to the personal/non-personal question. I then draw on Thomas Merton to outline an alternative pluralist route, illustrating how such an approach can apply to Christian and Buddhist ideas of an ultimate spiritual goal. The personal/non-personal issue is a good test for the approach I develop: because of the issue’s fundamentality, if the approach succeeds here then the prospects look bright for applying it to other topics of religious disagreement.

Author's Profile

Julian Perlmutter
Highgate School, London

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2021-06-09

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