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A Response to Christian Pluralism

J. Dan Gill

I. Introduction –

I was presented with the question “do you believe in religious pluralism?” My answer was: “It depends on what we mean by pluralism.” If we mean that it is presently best that all religious folks should have a level playing field upon which to practice their faith and to present it to others – the answer is a resounding: “Yes!” On the other hand, if by religious pluralism we mean that it is the enlightened approach to view all religions as being of equal value or as leading to the same God – the answer is a resounding: “NO!”

II. Pluralism as a Level Playing Field –

Why do I like “pluralism” if by that we mean everyone should have a level playing field? The answer is rather obvious. What happens when we do not have a level playing field? Let’s quickly review a few salient facts from history.

Over the centuries religions and societies have tended to enforce issues of faith requiring people to conform to views and religious standards set by the society itself. The pressure on people to conform has often been unbearable.

In the days of the Roman Empire – the non-Christian Romans saw themselves as being quite benevolent in allowing people to worship as they saw fit so long as they also honored the gods of the Romans. This was entirely unacceptable to the Jews and to our earliest Christian brothers and sisters. Later, with the merging of post-biblical Christianity and state we find entire populations were forced to embrace post-biblical versions of Christianity. This too was untenable to many, including some people of Christian faith who felt compelled to worship in accordance with their own understandings and consciences.

Eventually such tension resulted in the Protestant Reformation. That reformation saw a fracturing of Christianity in the west which persists to this day. It has been noted that where Protestant sects gained the upper hand politically, they in turn exerted pressure, even persecution, against whoever might be at variance with their particular views – again, even against other Christians. John Calvin’s complicity in the death of Michael Servetus is a notorious example.

Later, history records the flight of the Puritans seeking to escape oppression under King James and establishing colonies in “the Americas.” And yes, the Puritans themselves then created societies which might be considered oppressive in their own right.

In sum, history is filled with examples of those with numerical, economic, social or political advantage constraining others who dissent from their views. That same history is also replete with the oppressed – once finding relief – then themselves becoming oppressors.

The result of all of this is that both truth and people have suffered. How would we be delivered from such cycles of forced faith? How would we come back to the refreshing words of Luke in Acts 2:41: “Then they that gladly received [Peter’s] words were baptized?”

It would seem that hope was found in the Americas. Here we found a new freedom for diversity of political thought – political pluralism if you will. And it is in the environment of political freedom that we have come to an entirely new level of religious freedom. In fact, it might be said that in America God used democracy to deliver Christians from each other.

So, it is in such a wonderful day that we live. It is a day in which we can gather in this place with little fear of being set upon by the legal authorities. We embrace our faith in Christ knowing that likely the worst that can happen is social pressures and coercion. But, if as believers we are willing to disregard those more abstract wounds – we can gather, speak and write of the things of the kingdom of God – just as we are doing here today.

So then, what do we ask for? We ask only for a level playing field in which our thoughts about God and Christ can be spoken and then considered by the people with whom we have to do. And, if we are speaking with those who confess Christ but might differ from our sincere – and I think scripturally sound – points of view, I believe that many will be persuaded of the veracity of our faith.

But, more than that, I believe that to also be the case when we find ourselves speaking to people who do not confess Christ at all. Wherever we may go in the world, I believe that our faith in Christ can shine. I believe that it can prevail, and find place in the minds of many good people.

III. Pluralism as a Detriment –

I said, however, that I do not at all embrace the thought of pluralism if by that we mean all religions should be thought of equal value or leading to the same God. The word pluralism has become rather popular in our time and often as implying those very ideas.

The reason I disavow that notion of pluralism is that I believe it often has much the same effect as “forced faith.” Though it comes from a different direction, the end result is often the same. True debate is stifled, not by political force, but rather by a new kind of social pressure, a pressure that says that to be an enlightened, kind or caring person, one would never say that someone else’s faith is wrong.

However, this fails the test of reason at any level. If we cannot say that there is any view that is wrong, then by the exact same logic, neither can we say that anything is right. This is a reductio ad surdum. How can this ever be thought to be an enlightened approach? It rather fosters a cold status quo “for all” that can never really benefit people or truth.

This is in sharp contrast to the apostle Paul who was found “arguing” the matters of the gospel in synagogues and the market places (Acts 17:17); debating the issues of faith “daily” in the lecture hall of Tyrannus (Acts 19:9) and clearly setting forward the tenants of the kingdom of God when he stood in the meeting of the Areopagus and told them that they did not yet know the true God of heaven and earth (Acts 17:22). Clearly, Paul was never reduced to playing a game of religious “show and tell” that allowed the distinctiveness of his message or its importance to humanity to be at all obscured.

IV. Christian Pluralism –

I said that I do not at all favor “pluralism,” if by that word we mean that the enlightened view would be to say that all faiths, all religions, should be considered of equal value. And, I recognize that such a way of thinking can inhabit the Christian realm itself. Here, it would be suggested that no person’s Christian views should be questioned or challenged: that the “Christian thing” to do is to emphasize the love of Christ. It is felt that free discussion of beliefs is somehow detrimental or injurious.

I think this notion of Christian pluralism comes in part from a sense of guilt and perhaps a fear of ourselves. Guilt: because Christians have harmed many by force and social coercion over the centuries. Fear: because we are afraid that any discussion of differences will lead to Christians repeating those same kinds of wrongs again.

This leaves us in a day and time in which Christians often do not seek to resolve critical issues in differences of faith. Rather, they scramble to find and hold to some common thread (no matter how thin) which can be declared “orthodoxy.” This then allows social harm and coercion to be limited to those fewer numbers of people who because of conscience do not embrace the “orthodox” view.

If Christians would find a new starting point in unity, it should begin with all joining together in giving the world a great and sincere apology for the wrongs that have been done by Christians in the name of Christ. How shall we win people to him whom we injured in his name? With friends like that, Jesus Christ needs no enemies. It is likely that no other people have ever fallen so short of the faith they claimed as have Christians. On the other hand, no other people have ever had so much to fall short of in terms of the mighty faith that they pursue.

As to me, my pursuit of original Christianity is framed by the compelling exhortation of Jude. He tells the people in the third verse: “Beloved, while eagerly preparing to write to you about the salvation we share, I find it necessary to write and appeal to you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints.”

It was an unchanging faith – “once for all” delivered to the saints. I consider contending for that faith to be a mandate. And, notice, it is not post-biblical “orthodoxy” that we are to contend for. It is the faith once and for all delivered. Faith in Christ is too wonderful and too important to not seek to get it right.

How good is a faith that must be forced upon its hearers? In order to be healthy, Christianity needs the awakening that can only come with the recognition that many teachings today in Christian traditions are considered “orthodox” only because they were forcibly pressed upon people in days gone by.

Discussion in the pursuit of original Christian faith among those claiming Christ today should be greatly encouraged. Any form of “Christian Pluralism” that suggests that we suppress contending for that original faith is, in my view, prima fascia contra original Christianity. Are we to believe that the “Christian” thing to do would be to not contend for that faith?

Clearly we must emphasize the love of Jesus Christ. But by what reason or scripture will we say that his love would obscure or in any way diminish truth to the people he loves? Jesus’ statement in John 14:23 is: “If a man loves me, he will keep my words.” Those words can easily carry the weight: “If a man loves me, he will declare my words.”

We must decide first and above all – are we truly disciples of Jesus Christ. If so, then we must stand up and be counted with him. We must beware that there is a line between being true men and women of God versus being philosophers with Bibles.

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