Sophisticated Religious Pluralism Implies Semiotic Equivalence

The Religious Pluralist is often accused of equivocation when she suggests that there is no meaningful or relevant difference between various religious creeds and systems of doctrine. People want to say that there is, however, clearly a semantic difference between the statements issued by different religious systems of doctrine. For example, the Christian faith commits one to believing that Jesus died on a cross and rose again from the dead, whereas the Muslim faith commits one to believing that Jesus did not die on the cross and did not rise again from the dead. Clearly there is a semantic difference here, and no amount of sophistry will convince Muslims, Christians, or onlookers otherwise.

However, I take it that the sophisticated religious pluralist will want to say that while religious systems of doctrine are either incommensurable or else are relevantly different, the religious pluralist will want to appeal to a symbolic epistemology, and argue for semiotic equivalence of various world religions. In other words, when one puts together the whole system of doctrine of a particular religion, and couples it with practice, one is able to preview through symbol a story about the transcendent which is identical to all other such religious stories.

The trouble here may arise since not all religions are created equal. A religion which sanctions the sacrifice of firstborn children on pain of damnation, for example, is obviously more morally obnoxious than a religion which sanctions suicide. Perhaps only some religions, then, are semiotically equivalent (and semantically incommensurable). How is one to tell which ones are? Perhaps the evidence of saints; practitioners, we expect, will live a life better conformed to the story in which they believe, and their activities in the world will end up being the natural outworking of their faith. If faiths are semiotically equivalent, we would expect to see the actions of the ‘saints’ in all religions looking very similar. However, since obviously some religions are more morally obnoxious than others, it stands to reason that some religions may have a preferable system of religious symbols. If the best gauge we have of this is simply sanctity, then this easily turns into a weak but noteworthy argument for Roman Catholicism. Of course, as a first principle, one must always take the best, and not the worst, exemplars of respective faiths. When one does this, though, doesn’t Catholicism stand out as offering a surprising reservoir of saints to whom none seem equal? Who in their right mind, for instance, would compare Gandhi to St. Francis of Assisi? Perhaps one will sneer at this suggestion, thinking it just ideological bias on my part (I am, after all, a Catholic, and liable to be impressed with the sanctity of Christian saints). However, I offer it as a thought because I think it has some merit. It has the unfortunate quality of being difficult or impossible to demonstrate, but it’s a point I’ve heard raised in debates; Catholics have sometimes noted against Protestants that Protestantism has never given the world a Little Flower, a St. Francis, an Angelic doctor, or anything like them. The argument is tongue in cheek to be sure, but there’s something to it. The more one finds out about Gandhi, the more conflicted one is about him, even if on balance he is found to be praiseworthy. The more people find out about St. Francis of Assisi the more they fall in love with Jesus Christ.


About tylerjourneaux

I am an aspiring Catholic theologian and philosopher, and I have a keen interest in apologetics. I am creating this blog both in order to practice and improve my writing and memory retention as I publish my thoughts, and in order to give evidence of my ability to understand and communicate thoughts on topics pertinent to Theology, Philosophy, philosophical theology, Catholic (Christian) Apologetics, philosophy of religion and textual criticism.
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One Response to Sophisticated Religious Pluralism Implies Semiotic Equivalence

  1. If you are interested in some new ideas on religious pluralism and the Trinity, please check out my website at, and give me your thoughts on improving content and presentation.
    My thesis is that an abstract version of the Trinity could be Christianity’s answer to the world need for a framework of pluralistic theology.
    In a constructive worldview: east, west, and far-east religions present a threefold understanding of One God manifest primarily in Muslim and Hebrew intuition of the Deity Absolute, Christian and Krishnan Hindu conception of the Universal Absolute Supreme Being; and Shaivite Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist apprehension of the Destroyer (meaning also Consummator), Unconditioned Absolute, or Spirit of All That Is and is not. Together with their variations and combinations in other major religions, these religious ideas reflect and express our collective understanding of God, in an expanded concept of the Holy Trinity.
    The Trinity Absolute is portrayed in the logic of world religions, as follows:
    1. Muslims and Jews may be said to worship only the first person of the Trinity, i.e. the existential Deity Absolute Creator, known as Allah or Yhwh, Abba or Father (as Jesus called him), Brahma, and other names; represented by Gabriel (Executive Archangel), Muhammad and Moses (mighty messenger prophets), and others.
    2. Christians and Krishnan Hindus may be said to worship the first person through a second person, i.e. the experiential Universe or “Universal” Absolute Supreme Being (Allsoul or Supersoul), called Son/Christ or Vishnu/Krishna; represented by Michael (Supreme Archangel), Jesus (teacher and savior of souls), and others. The Allsoul is that gestalt of personal human consciousness, which we expect will be the “body of Christ” (Mahdi, Messiah, Kalki or Maitreya) in the second coming – personified in history by Muhammad, Jesus Christ, Buddha (9th incarnation of Vishnu), and others.
    3. Shaivite Hindus, Buddhists, and Confucian-Taoists seem to venerate the synthesis of the first and second persons in a third person or appearance, ie. the Destiny Consummator of ultimate reality – unqualified Nirvana consciousness – associative Tao of All That Is – the absonite* Unconditioned Absolute Spirit “Synthesis of Source and Synthesis,”** who/which is logically expected to be Allah/Abba/Brahma glorified in and by union with the Supreme Being – represented in religions by Gabriel, Michael, and other Archangels, Mahadevas, Spiritpersons, etc., who may be included within the mysterious Holy Ghost.
    Other strains of religion seem to be psychological variations on the third person, or possibly combinations and permutations of the members of the Trinity – all just different personality perspectives on the Same God. Taken together, the world’s major religions give us at least two insights into the first person of this thrice-personal One God, two perceptions of the second person, and at least three glimpses of the third.
    * The ever-mysterious Holy Ghost or Unconditioned Spirit is neither absolutely infinite, nor absolutely finite, but absonite; meaning neither existential nor experiential, but their ultimate consummation; neither fully ideal nor totally real, but a middle path and grand synthesis of the superconscious and the conscious, in consciousness of the unconscious.
    ** This conception is so strong because somewhat as the Absonite Spirit is a synthesis of the spirit of the Absolute and the spirit of the Supreme, so it would seem that the evolving Supreme Being may himself also be a synthesis or “gestalt” of humanity with itself, in an Almighty Universe Allperson or Supersoul. Thus ultimately, the Absonite is their Unconditioned Absolute Coordinate Identity – the Spirit Synthesis of Source and Synthesis – the metaphysical Destiny Consummator of All That Is.
    After the Hindu and Buddhist conceptions, perhaps the most subtle expression and comprehensive symbol of the 3rd person of the Trinity is the Tao (see book cover); involving the harmonization of “yin and yang” (great opposing ideas indentified in positive and negative, or otherwise contrasting terms). In the Taoist icon of yin and yang, the s-shaped line separating the black and white spaces may be interpreted as the Unconditioned “Middle Path” between condition and conditioned opposites, while the circle that encompasses them both suggests their synthesis in the Spirit of the “Great Way” or Tao of All That Is.
    If the small black and white circles or “eyes” are taken to represent a nucleus of truth in both yin and yang, then the metaphysics of this symbolism fits nicely with the paradoxical mystery of the Christian Holy Ghost; who is neither the spirit of the one nor the spirit of the other, but the Glorified Spirit proceeding from both, taken altogether – as one entity – personally distinct from his co-equal, co-eternal and fully coordinate co-sponsors, who differentiate from him, as well as mingle and meld in him.
    For more details, please see:
    Samuel Stuart Maynes

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