Crucial Issues for Christian Mission 5.3
Living in a Pluralistic Society
by Mark Naylor Oct, 2002
Through our church Karen and I run an unconventional Bible study which we affectionately call our "heretics Bible study". Within this group we welcome unorthodox opinions and encourage questions that reflect belief systems foreign to Christian teaching. We then examine how scripture, particularly the teachings of Jesus, deals with some of these issues. One of the most perplexing questions concerns the validity of the exclusive claims of Christ within a culture of tolerance and pluralism. Those not committed to the Christian faith have difficulty grasping the reasons for claiming Christ as the only savior. Those who are believers struggle to formulate an appropriate attitude towards those holding beliefs incompatible with their own. How are we, who lay claim to a black and white faith, to live within a rainbow culture? What is the right attitude towards, and how are we to deal with, other faiths?
This article and the following three articles will explore the way which we as Christians are to live within a pluralistic society (1). This first article describes the challenge we face in a pluralistic society. The second looks at the possible responses to these challenges. The third considers the attitude that Christians, while holding to an exclusivist faith, need to maintain within a pluralistic society. The fourth will propose an approach to evangelism in terms of "making room" for others in a pluralistic society.
As Christians living in a pluralistic society we are in a dilemma. On the one hand we hold beliefs incompatible with other religions and the general consensus of Canadian society as commonly expressed in the media. On the other hand we are part of a Canadian culture which values justice, equality, freedom and variety. These values are expressed in terms of tolerance towards a wide spectrum of beliefs and lifestyle choices. As a result we live in a time in which we often feel discomfited with our exclusive claims of faith. What is the cause of this rise of pluralism and the skepticism towards exclusive faith claims? In his book, Dissonant Voices: Religious Pluralism and the Question of Truth, Harold A.Netland (1991:28-33) summarizes the reasons for the rejection of exclusive religious claims:
1) Unprecedented exposure to people of other faiths. Previously it was only missionaries that had to deal with the challenge of other belief systems. Now whether in a car pool or a school function, we all interact with those who hold to beliefs very different from ours, beliefs which provide stability and meaning for their lives.
2) Influence of religious skepticism, including biblical skepticism. Many influential thinkers of the past decades have expressed anti-religious views which have caused many to consider religion in purely pragmatic terms, or even to reject religious faith outright. Even within Christian circles influential theologians have undermined the authority of the Bible with their rejection of an inspirational view of scripture.
3) Impact of relativism and relativistic thought. With no all-encompassing belief system by which to evaluate truth, all philosophical and religious positions have equal status and rights. This results in the call for tolerance and openness in which the value of any one position is based on the benefits gained, rather than on the assumption that there is a standard of truth by which it can be measured.
4) Distinction between the "public realm of facts and the private world of values." Religion has been limited to the latter category. Values and religion are a matter of private "preference". Absolute truth does not exist, all choices are relative to one’s personal taste or cultural tendency.
5) The pragmatic view of religion which "minimizes questions of truth and falsity and emphasizes instead what religion does for its adherents."
6) The assumption that is it arrogant and intolerant to hold one religion as true. No one is absolute, so how is it possible to declare that an alternate faith, chosen and believed by another, is false? Those on the outside have only limited understanding and are impudent to assume superiority over other beliefs.
7) The rise of the doctrine of soteriological universalism. "Christologies which see Jesus Christ as uniquely and exclusively divine and thus normative for all persons are increasingly being criticized for being obscurantist and untenable in our pluralistic world."
Dealing with the Challenge
In light of these realities, it is not enough to merely assume that we have the truth and ignore these challenges. Many people in our churches are uncertain how to grapple with these challenges to their exclusive faith claims. If not dealt with openly, some may lose their faith and begin to live a dual life professing faith within religious circles while living as practical skeptics. Others may withdraw from the outside pressure by erecting and extolling the barriers of a Christian sub-culture. People need to validate their faith through the interaction with those who do not share their faith. Growth is stimulated through challenge and stunted through complacency.
An arrest warrant went out for pastor Yousaf who is serving in a church associated with FEBInternational in Pakistan. He had been handing out video copies of the Jesus film. His congregation was furious with him for disturbing their fragile position as a minority within a majority Muslim population. Their successful co-existence with Muslims depended upon a spiritual withdrawal and lack of confrontation with their neighbors. Then the Spirit softened their hearts and they acknowledged that the pastor was only doing the task they had all been commissioned by Christ to do.
The choice of engaging our society in Canada does not have such potentially dangerous consequences. But we do need to learn how to move outside of our church walls and learn to appropriately engage those of other faiths.
Attempts to resolve this tension between the exclusive claims of Christ and the skepticism towards such exclusivism will be evaluated in the next article.
- (1) A pluralist society is one consisting of a variety of societal subgroupings, each with a distinct sub-culture and belief system. A pluralistic society is a society that is intolerant of any one belief system having priority over the others.
- References: Netland, H.A. 1991. Dissonant Voices: Religious Pluralism and the Question of Truth. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.