21. Living in a Pluralistic Society: Apples in a mixed-fruit culture

In Canada we live in a pluralistic (1) society. How are we as Christians to respond to different philosophies, lifestyles, religions and cultures? What is the right attitude for those who believe in the exclusive claims of Christ? Should we appreciate other people’s cultures?  Should we appreciate other people’s religious beliefs?  It is an illusion to think that we can somehow separate belief from culture as if they were two essentially different elements.  They are integrated and dependent upon each other.  All cultures need to be appreciated and all need to be judged.  All religions need to be appreciated, and all need to be judged.  But how is this done?  What is the right attitude in a pluralist society?

Confidence in Our Faith

The first step is to have confidence in the faith that we have been given.  The gospel is that fundamental perspective from which all of human experience can be evaluated and understood.  It is the absolute that does not rest on an authority beyond itself.  It is the light by which other things are seen.  The only authority is "the name of Jesus" (Newbigin 1989:6).  Like a pair of spectacles that help us to see things with the right perspective, the gospel is the story that we "indwell" and as a result we receive a focal point for meaning.  "The Christian community is invited to indwell the story, tacitly aware of it as shaping the way we understand, but focally attending to the world we live in so that we are able to confidently, though not infallibly, increase our understanding of it and our ability to cope with it" (ibid.:38, italics author).

The response of mission is neither timidity and the tendency not to pass judgment on truth statements, nor anxiety that Christianity may be in danger of collapse or of being overwhelmed by the other belief systems (ibid.:242-3).  Rather confidence ought to be the predominant attitude as we experience the reality of the gospel in our lives.  In a postmodern world it is the religion that is lived, not the one studied, that delivers the goods (Kavunkal 1994:87).  Our foundation is our faith by which we not only face the pluralism, but welcome a pluralist society in which our faith can grow stronger (Newbigin 1989:244).

A Platform of Openness

As evangelicals we need to welcome our pluralist society and not ignore or seek to legislate against it.  It is a pluralist society that guarantees our freedom and provides us the platform upon which truth can be sought and proclaimed.  We must avoid the extreme of demanding that our faith be preeminent and, alternatively, we must not reduce all faiths to a common denominator, as if our distinctives are unnecessary. We must maintain a faithfulness to the gospel while resisting an a priori valuation of other belief systems, an attitude that Lochhead (1988:40) calls "faithful agnosticism." We remain faithful to Christ while admitting to our ignorance of the complexities of another’s foundational values and beliefs. In maintaining such a perspective we are free to celebrate different religious traditions without fear.  It allows us to open the door to explore each other’s faith. As a result we will find things in common.  We will find areas where we can say, "Yes, God has spoken to both of us for all truth is God’s truth." But we will also be given the opportunity to present Christ and the truth of the gospel is a light which cannot be hid.

An Approach of Relevance

Rather than dismissing universal assumptions as unattainable on the one hand, or arguing their absolute necessity on the other, in a pluralistic environment it is more pertinent to allow inductive insights provide a platform from which the relevance of those eternal assumptions can be demonstrated.  The criticism from a postmodern society is not directed against the absolute claims per se, so much as against the cultural, philosophical and historical baggage which makes such absolute claims irrelevant within a pluralist society.

For example, for the average person logical arguments seeking to prove Christ’s resurrection as an indisputable fact mean nothing if the resurrection has no immediate impact on life.  Conversely, if meaning for life stemming from the resurrection is demonstrated then evidence for the resurrection becomes superfluous. Thus the proper approach is not to dogmatically promote historical expressions of absolutes hoping that somehow their relevance will become self-evident. Instead the relevance of our faith in shaping our lives must be the starting point because abstract ideas that are not evidenced in life will not be entertained as true no matter how clever the logic.

This should not be misconstrued as a call to compromise the truth claims of the gospel whenever the immediate relevance to a specific issue is elusive.  Rather the search for the relevance of the truth claims of the gospel must continue until a life expression of that reality is found.  The task of mission thus becomes a demonstration of and living out of the gospel that provides a practical reason for accepting those truth claims as a paradigm of living based on trust rather than certainty.  In a postmodern mind it is the experienced reality that can be trusted; logical arguments provide only an illusion of certainty.

The Missions Factor

What this has to do with missions is this: the way we reach out to our communities in Canada should be fundamentally the same as the way missionaries reach out with the gospel cross-culturally.  Not with the idea that we change people to become like us, but we change to become like them so that together we can experience the relevance of Jesus as Lord in a setting very different from the western church.  When we experience life and develop solidarity of thought with others, then our faith can be taken seriously by those living outside the boundaries of the evangelical camp.

A story is told of a corrections officer who in public prayer at the prison prayed Christian prayers.  This exclusive mind set, demonstrating the conviction that "my belief" should dominate, was not appreciated. Consequently, in an effort to ensure that the prayers would be acceptable to Christians, Hindus, Jews, and Muslims, prayers were offered to the "great absolute reality." Understandably this solution was found to be insipid and unsatisfactory.  Trying to find unity in unanimity by focusing on the lowest common denominator is reductionist and doomed to failure for it refuses to acknowledge the essential and contrasting beliefs of those religions.  It is like a raccoon washing a cube of sugar.  By removing everything that made others uncomfortable there soon was nothing of substance left. Finally they decided on a pluralistic solution: give everyone freedom to pray as they believe so that their prayers come from the heart.  The Jew can pray as a Jew, the Muslim as a Muslim, the Hindu as a Hindu and the Christian as a Christian.

In such a setting the reality of people’s faith is celebrated and that environment makes room for our own faith in Christ and calls us to make room for others.  But how far should we go in making room for people in our lives and how does this relate to our call to be a light for the world?  This will be explored in the next article.

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  • (1) A pluralist society is one consisting of a variety of societal sub-groupings, 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:
  • Kavunkal, J.  1994.  Ministry and Mission: Christological Considerations, in New directions in missions and evangelization 2.  Theological foundations, edited by J.A.  Scherer & S.B.  Bevans, Mayknoll: Orbis, 87-98.
  • Lochhead, D. 1988. The Dialogical Imperative. Maryknoll: Orbis.
  • Newbigin, L.  1989.  The gospel in a pluralist society.  Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
Mark Naylor

About Mark Naylor

I have been with Fellowship International since 1984. Karen and I served in Pakistan for 14 years and returned to Canada in 1999. I have continued to be involved in Bible translation traveling twice a year to Pakistan. My current role with Fellowship International and Northwest Baptist Seminary is as Coordinator of International Leadership Development
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