In the bumptious world of scholarly debates on religious pluralism, Mark Heim has been one of John Hick's ("An Interpretation of Religion," "A Christian Theology of Religions," etc.) most outspoken critics, and his "Salvations: Truth and Difference in Religion" devotes a chapter to a rather brutal deconstruction of Hick. Heim also tackles Wilfred Cantwell Smith and Paul Knitter, thinkers who, like Hick, see certain unitive elements in religion.
Heim's basic intention is to appear more pluralistic than Hick and Company; his own proposal is founded on an adaptation of Nicholas Rescher's "orientational pluralism," in which "one and only one position is rationally appropriate from a given perspective." Heim argues not for a Hickian salvation-liberation or a common-essence notion like Hick's neo-Kantian "Real," but for the possibility of "salvations."
Heim does this because he feels the usual "convergent" approach of common-essence pluralism squelches the richness and particularity of religions. Heim's "more plural" pluralism also leaves open the question of whether another religious perspective may in fact be wrong.
The analogy Heim uses to illustrate his view is the travel analogy. Going from DC to New York, for example, is very different from going to Honolulu from the same starting point. The MEANS to get to these places will have to vary (Greyhound bus to Honolulu from DC?), too. While various itineraries may share the very abstract notion of "travel" in common, the details of such travel are by no means "mere" details-- on the contrary, they become very significant and speak directly to the nature of the journey.
While I appreciate Heim's very significant contribution to the overall discussion of pluralism and his very clear (if overly punishing) critiques of Hick, I finished the book with a sense that Heim, an evangelical Protestant, arrived at his pluralistic proposal merely as a way to protect his evangelicalism, to which he still stubbornly cleaves (Heim's successive books seem to bear this out).
This childish attachment to old belief is precisely what Hick has been fighting against. Hick's proposal-- indeed, ALL pluralistic proposals-- demand something of their listeners: that they CHANGE. Hick demands that we work at our spirituality; Heim is proposing a "live and let live" paradigm, which sounds nice at first blush, but once you realize he's using it to justify his own evangelicalism (which isn't a "live and let live" form of Christianity-- it's an aggressively missionizing form!), you may see Heim as more than a little duplicitous.
Hick's model does have problems; various critics have beaten his "pluralistic hypothesis" to death, and Heim's 1995 "Salvations" arrived on the scene in time to provide a nice wrap-up and coup de grace. Heim's book is valuable on this score; his "orientational pluralistic" proposal is also worth study, but I recommend reading Heim on several levels.
A couple concluding remarks: First, philosophical models of religious pluralism all inevitably fail because they contain some sort of unitive element that makes them unacceptable. Heim's model also falls prey to this: in the travel analogy, all travel occurs on the surface of a single earth. Heim's model therefore allows for multiple salvations but still posits a numerically singular reality-- which is something he accuses Hick of when dealing with Hick's "Real." Hick, however, has been at pains to explain that his notion of the Real is NOT necessarily numerically singular (cf. Hick 1995)-- a crucial nondualistic point often missed in the ongoing debates over Hick. Second: Hick, Heim, Stephen Kaplan, and others with philosophical models of pluralism all assume that religion has a soteriological dimension. I don't agree with this assumption: philosophical Taoism has no soteriology (swim with or against the Tao; it's all Tao), and so-called "primitive" religions were more about world-maintenance than personal or corporate salvation.
Anyway, I ended up writing tons of notes in the margins of Heim's book. Whether you agree or disagree with Heim, you'll find him thought-provoking and stimulating.
I found the book one where I was behind the information/learning curve a bit, but with patience I came to understand -- for the most part -- the point that Heim makes, which is, I think (!) that there is not just an inarticulated "theos" out there waiting to be identified in a new and better way. Soteriocentrism and the other pluralisms cannot adequately replace the existing religions as they are so as to make one sweeping, grand religion so that everyone will live "happily ever after." Salvations -- with that 2nd 's' in the word -- is a much better argument.
This is not just another book on pluralistic theology. Here, Mark Heim takes us way beyond the fact that, whether we like it or not, there are around the world a number of religions besides ours. He starts by reviewing the works of other pluralistic theologians and concludes that even though they all admit the fact that other religions exist, they do not actually give enough credit to the fact that those traditions may be the source of alternative fundamental categories. In other words they accept the presence of those religions with their particular ideas, but find no need to take them into account for their own salvation. Heim suggests we should take more seriously the thoughts of other traditions regarding philosophy, theology, history or social thought. For this, we should not claim a God's eye view by behaving as if we knew it all. We should place ourselves not above but amongst the seekers and be attentive to other traditions' contributions, not from our religiously biased point of view, but through the use and understanding of their own terms. This will lead us to discover that there are not only various religions but various kinds of religions, sometimes completely at odds with each other, totally incompatible. And this will in turn lead us to discover that these religions have their own religious goal or religious end. The meaning of salvation actually varies from one to the other. Sometimes in ancient religions salvation was centered on good health and better survival conditions in this world. Then in order to motivate people despite a lack of steady and reliable accomplishment in this terrestrial field, salvation tended to drift towards a new life in an after world. But there again perspectives remain hard to reconcile. Salvation is seen for instance as doing away with self, or joining an absolute non-dual Self, or entering into a communion with the triune God. Heim therefore stops speaking of salvation in the singular, as a common goal for all religions. In his view, we are no more in a context where the thing that varies is the path to salvation but not salvation itself. We are now faced with this idea that there may be several salvations, several ends to humanity's journey and not only one. Depending on our religion, we have not all been educated to seek the same salvation. It is also true that within a given religion the idea of salvation has at times varied throughout the centuries. For people who are concerned by the meaning and the purpose of their life, this diversity of salvations can be very difficult to admit because all religions thrive to offer their members an exclusive and complete package, with everything that is needed for reaching their goal. They may agree to discuss with other religions on how to get there, but they are not ready to concede that we are not all aiming at the same goal. It may be somewhat unsettling to realize that there are not only other paths, but also other ends. One thing remains though; it is the fact that one cannot follow two paths at the same time. And one benefit that may come out of this concept is that, for the time being, until we know better, religions can be accepted not as absolutely true or false, but as actually true and alternative.