During January 2012, I taught a course on missions at the Mid-America Reformed Seminary, in Dyer, Indiana. The course consisted of two sections: First, “Current Issues in Missions,” and Second: “Christian Missions to Muslims.”
Under Current Issues in Missions, we dealt with The Place of Christian Mercy in Missions, The Contextualization Movement, Universalism, Pluralism, and The Insider Movement.
The following paper on The Ark of Salvation or the Titanic of Pluralism was written by seminarian, Jeffrey Scott. It is posted here by permission of the author, for which I am very thankful.
Rev. Bassam Michael Madany
The Ark of Salvation or the Titanic of Pluralism?
The great world faiths embody different perceptions and conceptions of, and correspondingly different responses to, the Real [the religious ultimate] from with the major variant ways of being human; and that within each of them the transformation of human existence from self-centeredness to Reality-centeredness is taking place. These traditions are accordingly to be regarded as alternative soteriological ‘spaces’ within which, or ‘ways’ along which, men and women find salvation/liberation/ultimate fulfillment.[i]
This quote by theologian and philosopher, John Hick, expresses the growing sentiment of the Western world with respect to religion. Dr. Hick’s understanding of “salvation/liberation/ultimate fulfillment” has been worked out in the academic world of the analytical philosophy of religion, and it is by no means a popular-level articulation of religion. It is, however, the kind of definition, that if they could understand it, the majority of people on the street would heartily embrace. A strong majority of Americans continue to identify themselves as religious, even Christian, but if they are convinced of anything it is that what they believe might only be true for them.
My last claim has been demonstrated by a rather extensive research project on the religious climate in America, recently conducted by sociologist Christian Smith. Dr. Smith’s research findings indicate that most people who identify themselves as Christians are no longer willing to accept Jesus at this word when He said “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14.6). It is increasingly common to hear self-avowed Christians say things like
“In my mind, there’s only one god, no matter what you call him. Muslims pray to the same God I do. They call him Allah or whatever, but it’s the same entity for all world religions, those that believe in a supreme being. They’re talking generally about the same one.
“I have difficulty with the idea of Christian morality as a standard. I think there is a code of human conduct that, if you like, Christ emulated as a human. But why label it is Christian? There are others who can do the same thing. It’s a moral code of doing what is right. I don’t like putting a Christian tag on it.
“Be self-sufficient. Be your brother’s keeper, I agree up to a point. Be honest. Work hard and be responsible for your own actions. That is what I think Christianity is, or what any good solid religion can contribute.
“To say that other religions are wrong is self-centered and egocentric. I am not even comfortable with saying all religions point to the same God. Whatever trips your trigger is fine with me, if that’s your belief system. We are mortal. Who is to say who is right and wrong? If it helps you get through your life and helps bring meaning to your life, and then fine.[ii]”
What we hear in these statements is the uneasy, and even frustrated, religious resignations of Americans who live in a culture that is increasingly pluralistic. We hear an articulation of the evolving worldview of many Christians who live and work next to Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, New Age, agnostic, and atheistic neighbors. We hear the subconscious philosophical seedbed out of which the Western church will be formulating and implementing a strategic plan for Christian missions. What we hear could very well be the long, slow death of Christian missions in the American church—both home and abroad.
In the 19th century, when Christianity almost stood alone in the Western world, a great missionary movement swelled in the church and the gospel was taken to the non-Christian world at great expense. But today, while unreached peoples immigrate into the Christian West becoming her neighbors, many Christians are retreating. They are retreating from the exclusive claims of Jesus Christ. It is increasingly common for Christians to deny the Apostle Peter’s declaration that there is no other name given unto men by which they must be saved (Acts 4.12). Even though the Apostle said that there is salvation in none other than Jesus Christ, churches, seminaries, and Christians today are open to the possibility that God will accept whatever worship or faith that his creatures offer him. In the pages that follow, I want to explore this phenomenon, most often called pluralism, looking at the two most common arguments for it, the sociological and the theological. I also want to explore the missional impulse emanating from the pluralist camp. It is not my intention to offer a full-blown critique of Christian pluralism, but in the last section of this paper I will endeavor to unmask the presuppositions that underlie it. I believe what we will find is that Christian pluralism is anything but Christian and is in fact a distinct religion attempting to live parasitically on Christianity.
If Christian pluralism is “the unequivocal affirmation of the equal validity of all world faiths”[iii] from a Christian perspective, it behooves us to understand the theological and/or philosophical foundation upon which the seemingly plain claims to exclusivity made by Jesus Christ are reinterpreted by those who claim to follow Him. From my limited vantage, I propose that there are two main categories of Christian pluralism with which we must contend—the sociological and the theological.
Sociological Christian pluralism is the advocacy for the validity of all religions based on sociological and cultural factors. It is founded on the premise that religion is mainly, or exclusively, “a matter of spiritual experience.”[iv] On these grounds, says Professor Diana Eck of Harvard University, it is the duty and delight of the enlightened Christian to celebrate diversity and experience the religious expressions of the cultures surrounding them. Prof. Eck argues that it is “definite article truth” (e.g. Jesus’ “I am the way, and the truth…) that leads to “hatred and bigotry,” which is the sin of all sins.[v]
As all Christians should, sociological Christian pluralism decries the violence and murder that marked the 20th century as the bloodiest in human history. In searching to explain the forces behind the atrocities of the recent past, sociologists have located the impetus for human violence in what is called xenophobia—the fear of something foreign or different. When xenophobia takes hold of a culture it breeds arrogance and bigotry, and when it is politicized it is capable of intense expressions of violence as seen in Nazi Germany’s program of genocide.
It is broad-based cultural change that sociological Christian pluralism is seeking. Its proponents seek to recast the nature of religion with the hope of educating people and defusing xenophobic tendencies. It is the encounter of differing views of metaphysical truth which leads to fear and conflict. But, according to Eck, the true nature of religion is the “priority of experience over doctrine.”[vi] The divergent rituals, customs, and religious practices (i.e. experiences) of various faiths ought not to lead to fear or conflict. For, if people would only understand that “truth” is not what is at issue, then they could learn to appreciate the differences of experience and lay down their bigoted fear. With a view to eliminating strife between religions and people groups in a pluralistic society, sociological Christian pluralists seek to cut out of all religions what they perceive is at the heart of the conflict—claims of transcendent truth!
So, we see that in sociological Christian pluralism the dominate concern is eliminating conflict that arises in multicultural societies. It may be well defined and formally articulated, such as with Dr. Eck in her book A New Religious America, or more casually held, such as in the uneasy conscience of a growing number of American Christians. The latter group made of clergy and laity alike “has embraced the notion that while the Christian faith is ‘true’ and legitimate for them, other religions can be equally ‘true’ and legitimate options for others in different circumstances.”[vii] Rather than potentially living in tension with our neighbors over religious differences, sociological Christian pluralists, of all stripes, are willing to make truth relative and all religions equally valid.
Having described the phenomenon of sociological Christian pluralism I now wish to explain a less mainstream, though equally pernicious, form of Christian pluralism, which I am calling theological Christian pluralism. This form of Christian pluralism is an attempt to ground the equal validity of all religions in the text of Christian Scripture itself. Governed by the philosophical presupposition that there are “fundamental limitations on the power of interpretation” on any giving text, meaning that “objective truth in most realms is impossible, and that therefore the only proper stance is that which disallows all claims to objective truth.”[viii]
The slow and steady development of theological Christian pluralism can be traced to the time of the Enlightenment. A giant epistemic shift occurred beginning with Descartes famous formulation, cogito ergo sum, “I think therefore I am.” Rather than grounding true knowledge in God and making all human knowledge “but a subset to his knowing,”[ix] Descartes began with himself as the “knower” who can only claim to know what he has apprehended rationally or empirically. Within time, philosophers, theologians, and scientists alike began to optimistically employ the Baconian scientific method to every sphere of knowledge demanding that it submit to this enlightened form of verification.
The Western world’s quest-for-truth led with the conviction that modernity could discern what is “true for everyone, at all times, in the same way.”[x] In other words, modernity would uncover the universal principles of all that underlies human existence thus uniting the world in one great movement of progress. But, with the advent of two horrific world wars, modernity fractured and the consensus of hope gave way to global uncertainty. The belief that objective truth could be known by human subjects through investigation was largely abandoned. A new skepticism towards authoritative claims to truth grew giving rise to existentialist notions of truth. Existentialism groans under the pessimistic conclusion that objective truth is not available to us. It seeks to make life meaningful, or at least bearable, in a world that is shattered. What matters in existentialism is authentic, passionate living by each human subject even as they encounter the despair, pain, and even absurdity of human existence. “Truth is found in the inward how, not the external what. This passionate inwardness becomes the highest truth for the individual.”[xi] It is this existentialist philosophical presupposition, when employed in Christian theological reflection, which makes pluralism hermeneutically possible.
There are a number of “Christian” theologians who advocate genuine religious pluralism based on a deconstructed reading of Scripture. We could look at John Hick, Paul Knitter, S. Mark Heim, or Rosemary Radford Reuther. For the sake of brevity I will focus on Christopher C. Smith’s articulation of deconstructive Christian pluralism.
Deconstructionism, of course, is a particular postmodern approach to a text argued for by French philosopher Jacques Derrida. Derrida sought to bring Heidegger’s version of existential philosophy to bear on written texts. In the deconstruction of a text the meaning of words/symbols are never complete but find their meaning being reshaped by interaction with the thought world of the reader. Thus, the tensions, or even contradictions, found in a text by a reader must give way to the reinvention of meaning, which “are simultaneously a continuation of [text] and a creation of something authentically new.”[xii] Mr. Smith, then, attempts to extend the deconstructionist principles to “reinvent the Christian tradition—a reinvention that is at once continuous with the tradition and something authentically new.”[xiii]
Smith applauds the work of Liberal scholars, such as Strauss and Bultmann, who sought to strip biblical religion “down to find the essential kernel beneath the husk.”[xiv] The result of this enterprise is the discovery of “authentically Christian ambitions,” namely love and justice. It is in view of authentic Christian ambitions that pluralism extends beyond Christianity proper to see that all religions are expressing a common essence rather than a merely Christian one.[xv] In fact, Smith argues that pluralism is more Christian than Christianity in that it shows greater promise in bringing unity of heart, one of the Apostle Paul’s chief admonitions, when the past has taught us the bankruptcy of orthodox Christianity’s efforts to build unity around doctrine.[xvi]
Further demonstrating the liberal roots of his argument, Smith invokes Friedrich Schleiermacher’s view that “all reality is an incarnation of the divine.”[xvii] Taking Schleiermacher’s understanding as gospel truth, Smith then infers that the “core of every religion is a different intuition of the Universe”[xviii] (which is equated with God himself). It follows then, Smith says, that it is the duty of Christianity to “continually express itself in new language in order to be a living and relevant faith.”[xix]
Smith concludes that it is Christian pluralism alone that acts in accord “with the special emphasis in the New Testament when they resolve…conflict in favor of love. The natural implication of the pluralist solution to this tension is that God is at work in the religions wherever and the extent that love is found in them.”[xx] Smith finds John Hick’s reasoning in this regard impenetrable: “since there is little discernable moral difference between the followers of the various world religions, and since God is the source of all moral goodness, God must be equally at work in every world faith.”[xxi]
I have endeavored to present theological Christian pluralism (which is a more diverse than I have presented it here) as a movement attempting to find the rationale for religious pluralism from within the Christian tradition and Scriptures. Given the fact that the arguments for theological Christian pluralism are made in academic circles most of the arguments do not immediately find their way into the pews of the church. But we are mistaken if we think that means the average church member isn’t being influenced by these voices. In fact, we hear accents of these arguments in Christian authors who have the ear of thousands, if not millions, of Christians in America (e.g. Brian McLaren’s A Generous Orthodoxy and Rob Bell’s Love Wins). Theological Christian pluralism is on the march!
What if Christian pluralism dominated the landscape of the church and ministers and elders who believed in the equal validity of all religions had control of the purse-strings? What would both home and foreign missions look like? The historic understanding of missions emphasized evangelism in the form of gospel proclamation giving expression to some basic theological content rooted in the reality that the Eternal Son of God was sent of the Father, born of a virgin, lived in obedience, died to redeem His people from their sins, and was raised to rule and reign over his church from heaven. But, as the reader might imagine, this program of world mission has been recast by Christian pluralists.
The traditional understanding of Christian missions has been judged as “exclusivist” in that it promulgates concepts such as, “’finality’, ‘absoluteness’, ‘decisiveness’, ‘uniqueness’, ‘only’, etc.”[xxii] Pluralism advocate, S. Wesley Ariarajah, associates Christian exclusivism with imperialism saying it “reflect[s] the polemical, adversarial, and colonial days of the Christian faith,” and is “ridden with the quest for power, expansion, numbers etc. and is driven by a sense of superiority over others.”[xxiii] He declares that this paradigm will no longer do (I think nearly every Christian exclusivist would agree that his biased and repulsive description of Christian mission ought to be disposed of, if it ever even existed) and must be replaced with…dialogue.[xxiv]
While Ariarajah believes that the appropriate Christian missional dialogue has yet to be discovered, professor Amos Yong of Bethel University believes that he has a “new theological framework for Christian mission in a religiously plural world.”[xxv] Yong agrees with Ariarajah making dialogue one of two key components of enlightened Christian mission, the other being proclamation.
What exactly is meant by dialogue as a genuine form of Christian mission? Yong declares that it is “genuine interpersonal engagement” empowered by “the Spirit of God who gives the gift of communication.”[xxvi] Both sides engaged in missional dialogue take one another seriously and make a “genuine effort to set aside one’s biases and perspective in order to hear out and then enter into the perspective of the other.”[xxvii] The fruition of missional Christian dialogue is seen in “both sides tak[ing] seriously the beliefs (doctrines) of the other…making an honest intersubjective effort to understand the other’s doctrines from the other’s perspective.”[xxviii] And, if I am understanding and interpreting Yong correctly, the result of this genuinely “Christian” dialogue would be extended peace built on trust and mutual understanding so that the two parties might be able to engage together in extending love and harmony in their shared community.
The second component of Yong’s missiological framework is that of proclamation. Because “authentic dialogue involves not only listening but also speaking,”[xxix] Yong states that moments of proclamation are demanded. Proclamation as he defines it consists of issuing challenges from one side to the other in genuine “give-and-take”.[xxx] Through proclamation and dialogue stereotypes are corrected, faith commitments are strengthened, erroneous beliefs are exposed and abandoned, and even “conversions” happen.[xxxi] Of course, Yong is not talking about conversion in the sense of leaving one belief system behind for an entirely different one, for that is completely unnecessary in pluralism. Yong defines conversion as an attitudinal change that occurs when we begin to take another person’s faith commitments seriously. Put another way, conversion is when we are willing to walk in someone else’s shoes.[xxxii]
The strategy and goal for mission advocated by those in the Christian pluralism camp is quite simple. By friendly, non-confrontational, and open-ended dialogue Christians are to celebrate the religious ideas of others acknowledging that all paths are equally valid so that mutual peace and love can be shared among all people.
This is the point in the paper that I had earlier promised to offer a brief response to the claims of Christian pluralism. While it would be possible to give a blow-by-blow response to what I have here presented from the writings of Christian pluralists, that is not my intention in this paper. It would be completely appropriate to talk about the logical inconsistencies of pluralism like Carson does when he points out that philosophical pluralism (his term encompassing my two categories above) doesn’t play by its own rules. He makes this abundantly clear when he says
The pressures from philosophical pluralism tend to squash any strong opinion that makes exclusive truth claims—all, that is, except the dogmatic opinion that all dogmatic opinions are to be ruled out, the dogmatic opinion that we must dismiss any assertion that some opinions are false.[xxxiii]
I could also make the point that so-called Christian pluralism pretends to bring a long overdue softening and evolution to Christianity so that Christians will finally be ready to join the rest of the world at the table of dialogue. Of course, strict adherents to other world religions are not lining up to talk to Christians and “walk around in their shoes.” S. Mark Heim even makes the point that for pluralism to commandeer other religions like it is trying to do with Christianity it will first have to subject those religions to the liberal Christian project begun in the Enlightenment. Very insightfully, Heim says
No doubt a primary motive of pluralistic theologies is to affirm the validity of various religious traditions. But it is an implicit primary assumption of such theologies that these traditions are without exception indefensible as they stand. Only as demythologized, adapted to the categories of critical historical thought, put in the context of Western understanding of epistemology, and measured against modern conceptions of equality and justice can these religions be pronounced valid. It could be no other way, since only in these terms can Christianity itself possibly be valid for these writers. In this indirect but powerful way, Christianity remains normative as a kind of photographic negative against which other traditions are constructed.[xxxiv]
In other words, Christian pluralism has to inflict the presuppositions of liberal Christian modernity onto other religions in order bring them onboard with the all-religions-are-equally-valid project.
Again, I am not interested in deconstructing Christian pluralism at this point. Instead, I simply wish to challenge the use of one adjective found in the literature advocates of pluralism use. I simply wish to dispel the notion that pluralism is in anyway “Christian.” Let me start by saying that when I read the arguments made by “Christian” pluralists I think I understand how it would feel to be Dr. Martin Harris in the movie Unknown. Dr. Harris, played by Liam Neeson, falls into a coma after a terrible car accident, while attending a scientific conference in Berlin. When he awakes four days later, he searches for his wife at the conference he was to speak at only to discover that she is with another man who claims that he is Dr. Martin Harris. His wife and other conspirators are in on the hoax to steal Dr. Harris’ identity for their own gain. Initially, all he can do is wonder how some imposter has come along and stolen his wife, his wallet, and even his personhood. This character personifies what it is like to be a Christian (in the full and historic sense of the word) staring down religious pluralists who wish to steal the Christian identity and use it for ends never intended by the Jesus Christ or the Spirit-inspired Scriptures.
As Heim said in the quote above, pluralistic theologies are born of “demythologized, critical historical thought, put into the context of Western understandings of epistemology, and measured against modern conceptions of equality and justice.” Pluralist theologies owe their existence to the Enlightenment and the presupposition of human autonomy and Hegelian, evolutionary processes whereby man, and even God, come into their own through process. Are we really to believe that the special revelation that is Christian Scripture does not stand on its own and awaited the advent of the reign of reason to be understood? Are we really to believe that the authors of Scripture, as well as the millennia of Christian interpreters were tragically wrong when they took God’s Word as it stood and confessed Christ’s exclusive claim as the only mediator between God and man? Or, is something else going on?
I believe that this line of reasoning exposes the fact that the basis for “Christian” pluralism is in fact found in the pages of Scripture. But, it is not found in the words of Jesus Christ, the Apostle Paul, or any of God’s prophets. It is found in the words of the Serpent in Genesis 3.1: “Did God really say?” “Did God really say that? What He really is trying to do is the opposite of what He told you. You need to judge for yourself, call your own shots, and make your own reality. Let me interpret His words for you,” is what the Serpent said.
To become convinced of the conclusions of “Christian” pluralism while reading Scripture one has to be committed to the principle of unbelief, one has to be committed to the Enlightenment’s principle that if we can be certain of anything, it is our own thinking, reasoning, and experiencing individual selves, which everything must be subjected to it. Christianity, to the modern, liberal, anti-supernatural mind is something to be taken up only in order to accomplish an end they had in mind before they came to it. Christianity simply becomes one way among many (pluralism) to maintain morality in a worldview that denies transcendence and objectivity. But as Machen said, Christianity is immune to this kind of treatment, for he says
The moment it is so treated it cease to be Christian. For if one thing is plain it is that Christianity refuses to be regarded as a mere means to a higher end. Our Lord made that perfectly clear when He said: “If any man come to me, and hate not his father and mother… he cannot be my disciple” (Luke xiv. 26). Whatever else those stupendous words may mean, they certainly mean that the relationship to Christ takes precedence of all other relationships… Christianity will indeed accomplish many useful things in this world, but if it is accepted in order to accomplish those useful things it is not Christianity… Christianity will produce a unified nation, in a slow but satisfactory way; but if it is accepted in order to produce a unified nation, it is not Christianity: Christianity will produce a healthy community, but if it is accepted in order to produce a healthy community, it is not Christianity.[xxxv]
I conclude this look at “Christian” pluralism asserting that it is anything but Christian. I have no bones to pick with pluralists who want to argue from the principles of human autonomy and the transcendent powers of human reason. They will have to stand on the merits of their own arguments when they get to positing the foundation for morality. But, they are not free to pose as Christians and reinterpret the claims of Christ that have stood for two thousand years.
There is a firestorm of controversy awaiting the Christian church if she wishes to stand on the Word of God and engage the world of unbelief. She cannot continue to exist as a distinct presence and possessor of the infallible and inerrant Word of God if she cowers before the unbelief and criticism of the world. And she will not be Christ’s ark of salvation if she wilts under the demands of radical skepticism and jumps on board the Titanic that is liberal pluralism.
[i] Harold Netland, Encountering Religious Pluralism: The Challenge to Christian Faith and Missions (Downers Grove: IVP, 2001), 52, 53.
[ii] Christian Smith, American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 53, 54, 61. These quotes are real samples from surveys and interviews conducted by Smith and his research colleagues. Each of these statements was taken from persons whom identified themselves as Christians.
[iii] S. Mark Heim, “Pluralism and the Otherness of World Religions,” in First Things, Aug/Sept 1992, 29-35.
[vii] Netland, Encountering Religious Pluralism, 13, italics original.
[viii] D.A. Carson, The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 57.
[xi] Søren Kierkegaard quoted from R.C. Sproul, The Consequences of Ideas: Understanding the Concepts That Shaped Our World (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2000), 156.
[xxii] S. Wesley Ariarajah, “Interreligious Dialogue and Mission in Protestant Theology,” in Modern Believing, 51 no. 3, 2010, p 38-47, 46.
[xxv] Amos Yong, “A P(new)matological Paradigm for Christian Mission in a Religiously Plural World,” in Missiology: An International Review, vol. 33, no. 2, April 2005, p 175-191, 181.
[xxxiii] Carson, The Gagging of God, 33.
[xxxiv] S. Mark Heim, “Pluralism and the Otherness of World Religions,” in First Things, Aug/Sept, 1992, 29-35, 31.
[xxxv] J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1923), 151-152.