Entering the Far Country of Pluralism

The dominant religion of North America is religious pluralism, the posture that each religions deserves a place at the table, that each religion has something to offer, and that no religion is truth, right or superior. It is the religion of the irreligious and probably more or less the religion of the “spiritual but not religious.”  Yes, and the Christian framework has eroded and for many — if not most — is forgotten or unknown.

How does the Christian witness or live in a pluralistic world? David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw, in their book Prodigal Christianity, address this situation with their proposal of “prodigal openness.” They pose this approach in the face of two alternatives:

First, the dialogical approach of Brian McLaren seeks a “wider vision of what God is doing in the world” (150). Walking next to others of other religions in search of a common good. Openness and respectful are operative words.  But the authors contend there’s too much dialogue here and not enough witness, too much listening and not enough witnessing.

Second, the truth declaration approach of J. Piper, J. Taylor and D.A. Carson pushes harder for non-compromise and more declaration of the truth of the gospel and the truthfulness of truth. Jesus is Lord is objective truth.

Their contention is that we live in a new world where defensiveness and aggressiveness miss the mark in a pluralist world; that there is a better way, one borne out with their own experiences.

“Instead God calls us to stand with while witnessing to the Lordship of Christ in our lives” (154). They see two elements of how to do this:

We enter into the far country of pluralism incarnationally, which for them means as embodying the gospel in how we live and how we live with others. Central to this is a lack of coercion. “We do not communicate the gospel until we have learned how (or have the right opportunity) to say it in such a way that it can be received as good news” (157).

We enter into the far country of pluralism as witnesses — by non-coercively pointing people to Jesus as Lord. The Christian’s affirmation is the non-negotiable affirmation that Jesus is Lord, and on that basis all witness occurs. Non-coercively, non-aggressively, non-defensively. Conviction that Jesus is Lord empowers the Christian to be a witness and to know God is at work.

Pluralism, they contend, is God’s way of revealing truth. It began with Babel. “Pluralism is the non-violent condition for God to work out the truth of the gospel in each of us, slowly over time and in relation to others (even other religions)” (160).

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • J.L. Schafer

    This week I have been rereading The Gospel in a Pluralist Society by Newbigin. He makes some very careful points and distinctions that I find useful, which other authors tend to gloss over. For example: Is it possible for individuals outside the boundaries of Christianity to be saved? Yes. Are nonChristian religions vehicles of salvation? No. And so on.

    Do Fitch and Holsclaw deal carefully with these issues? Or do they mostly talk about how to witness in a climate of pluralism?

  • T.S.Gay

    Do you know that if you Google the word Babel the main entries are of the 2006 movie. The underlying theme is we’re not that different.
    I wholeheartedly agree that pluralism is redemptive. God says go. They say lest we be scattered.
    To me we try to get others to be like me, talk like me, act like me. It’s a seven grade major. It’s a good ole boy syndrome. It’s a frustrating aspect of homogenous cultures, not the least of which is Sunday morning.
    About time we give up crusades as evangelism. Newbiggin’s perspectives on exclusiveness, inclusiveness, and universalness need to be passed around. We are fundamentally different. Not in what Soltzhenitzen observed, that the line between good and evil does not run between town and country, but down the middle of the human heart. That is true. But we’re different in the myriad of nuances of good and evil. Humility/pride, diligence/sloth, charity/greed. temperance/gluttony, kindness/envy. chastity/lust, patience/wrath.
    Yes. let’s go to the far country of pluralism. And not too much listening without witnessing. Yes with that Jesus is Lord as our original creed. But I think we need to add the Jesus Creed also. To me worship is the practice of loving God( preferably a daily devotional or worship). So you don’t give up on church. To me the beatitudes summarize the best way to love neighbor( preferably a daily taking up of cross). So you don’t give up on those who are by definition different.

  • http://lisesletters.wordpress.com Lise

    This is a really important topic and unfortunately, one I don’t have adequate time to interface with a few minutes before having to walk out the door. Yet as someone who lived with a Muslim family for a year in Indonesia, worked in an orthodox Jewish nursing home for four years and sat with a Buddhist meditation circle on a routine basis, Christians need to be more tolerant and open to people of other faiths. How we ourselves bear witness to Christ is a complicated process and one in which I reflect much on. All religions are not the same – most definitely. And when I came to Christ, I knew my life was profoundly different. Yet my immersion in spirituality prior was in many ways all pointing me to the Lord and laying an important foundation. God made all of us on this planet and we need to remember and respect that.

  • http://www.exit-25.com paul del signore

    I would be interested in hearing some examples of this:
    “We enter into the far country of pluralism as witnesses — by non-coercively pointing people to Jesus as Lord.”

    It seems that any mention of Jesus as Lord, even if it is done with gentleness and respect, is regarded as an intolerant view. I have some ideas on how this can play out, but am interested in how others would approach this.

    paul del signore

  • T.S.Gay

    I think I’m on topic and answering paul del signore at the same time… You’ll interact with more and more post-moderns as we go forward. They really believe you are no more than those you are in culture with. This leads to believing history is not as interpreted, but only a slice of that time and culture. It therefore isn’t all that relevant. And it leads to huge distrust of authority in general. In that type of reality when you say witness, it is in the sense of say watching LeBron James…..as an improving and phenomenal athlete and person. So we as witnesses have to proclaim in the marketplace of ideas that Christianity is the most pragmatic belief system. And we must be holistic in our communication( it’s not about free will only, but passion and emotion, and performance faithful to a better direction). Any sign of oppression, not affirming the whole person being communicated with, has to be avoided. Our model has to be about empowering people- as improving peoples lives. There’s enough lying about which road to travel in the marketplace of ideas, that we can develop pictures, movies, stories, and personal communication that engages others. Tolkien and Lewis were at the beginning of this shift. We haven’t shifted into another gear in these directions partially because of older paradigms and partially because we don’t understand the post-modern shift.

  • Mark Mathewson

    I have found Harold Netland’s stuff (e.g., _Encountering Religious Pluralism_) very helpful on this topic. A few years ago I was able to attend a debate Netland had with Paul Knitter on religious pluralism. Not only an informative debate, but a great model of civil discussion of this topic from both scholars. You might be able to find a video of that debate somewhere on Trinity Evangelical Divinity School’s website.

  • Adam

    “Instead God calls us to stand with while witnessing to the Lordship of Christ in our lives” (154).

    I think we should emphasize the word OUR and the phrase OUR LIVES. It seems to me that pluralism is an attempt to rationalize the doctrines of different beliefs because it’s easier than obeying Jesus’ command to love our neighbors.

  • http://afriendforthejourney.com Journey Pastor

    I’ve taught comparative religion at a college for more than six years, and so I want to make a pitch: Christians need to understand other religions! I’ve found over the years that:
    1. Atheists and agnostics know more about various world religions than most Christians do.
    2. Members of other religions know more about Christianity than vice versa.
    3. That puts Christians at a disadvantage in religious discourse–we appear like travelers in a foreign land who insist that the natives learn English while we refuse to learn their tongue.
    We can’t engage in the sort of relationships that Fitch advocates without a willingness to learn about others’ faiths.

  • GaryLyn

    Re: Adam and TS Gay
    I think it is possible to hold on to our beliefs and practices both passionately and tentatively, both deeply and with humility. For me, that is one of the gifts of post-modern thinking. So yes, it is about Jesus as Lord of OUR LIVES!!

  • Joe Canner

    Journey Pastor #8: There was a Pew study that came out a year or two ago that found exactly that. Witnessing is a two-way street. How are we supposed to expect others to listen to us if we are not willing to listen them? Once both sides have had their say, it’s up to God through the Holy Spirit to make the next move. Of course, in the meantime, genuine friendship and relationship will “speak” volumes as well.

  • MikeW

    Does anyone have a reaction to this: In talking about the Israeli- Palestinian conflict, an Orthodox Jewish good friend of mine once said to me, “We need to get beyond all the ‘my god is better than your god’ talk.” I said, Yes. I’m not saying my god is better than your god, I just saying Jesus is the Messiah of God.”

  • GaryLyn

    MikeW
    The only thing I would change is I’m just saying that, for me, Jesus is the Messiah of God.

  • Craig Wright

    The non-coercion strategy makes sense. But dropping clues, and being ready with well thought out answers in a context of listening and friendship helps.
    What strikes me is how the subject of living in a pluralistic society is hardly dealt with in the NT. Idolatry is mentioned, but the current situation of living with major world religions is not considered. I especially regret the use of Jesus’ words, in John 14, “I am the way, the truth , and the life,” as a hammer. The context is of consoling the disciples upon his departure, not a wedge to use with other religions.

  • Robert

    GaryLyn, talk about postmodern relativism! Jesus is the either the Messiah of God or he isn’t. If he is, then everyone needs to acknowledge that fact. If he isn’t, then no one need acknowledge that; and you and I can quit reading religious blogs and go waste ourselves in hedonism until the world ends or we die meaningless, eternal deaths.

  • Robert

    Craig Wright, why do you assume that the idolatry Paul is dealing with in passages such as Acts 17:16-31, I Cor. 8:5-6, and Galatians 4:8 is any different than dealing with major world religions or living in a pluralistic society today? The society in which New Testament Christians lived as a tiny religious minority was very pluralistic, and Greek and Roman polytheism (which Paul identifies as idolatry) were the major world religions of that era.

    I think Paul has shown us precisely how we are to deal with other world religions, which is to regard them as incapable of saving. Yet we are to be as respectful and as winsome in speech as Paul was in the Areopagus (Acts 17).

  • Steven Walker

    I agree with GaryLyn and Craig.

  • Craig Wright

    Robert, the reason I see our situation differently, is that in the NT, first of all, Jesus doesn’t deal with a pluralistic society, except to recognize the faith of a few Gentiles, on occasion. Paul, dealing with a more cosmopolitan situation is concerned that Christians are not negatively affected by pagan practices. As you said, Christianity was a minority religion, and Christianity was struggling to see itself as different. The Acts 17 situation is so rare, because it is only one of two places that Paul deals with Gentile audiences, except for when he is arrested and defends himself, giving personal testimony. That passage does give us good guidelines for being well educated and being able to use other resources to give answers. Today, here in America, Christians are the majority and are used to it, but now we are meeting people from different major world religions that have time honored texts and traditions. (The paganism of Paul’s day has basically faded away.) So, the advice that Paul gives in his letters is to stay unstained from the pagans, rather than get out and meet them and interact with them (except for Col. 4: 5-6, being ready to respond gracefully).

  • MikeW

    @GaryLyn (or anyone else)

    What would you want to communicate to the other person by adding “for me” into the statement?

    For myself, I was desiring to agree with my friend’s statement because the claims of Jesus do not lead to hostility or violent conflict, but I also desire to challenge him to consider what claim the Gospel might have upon his life.

    I worry that adding “for me” dilutes the challenge inherent in the claim that Jesus is the Messiah.

  • GaryLyn

    MikeW
    I would say that the addition of “for me” doesn’t dilutes the claim that Jesus is Messiah. Instead it particularizes it and personalizes it. It moves from being a truth claim that the other has to accept to a description of the one with whom I am in relationship and how that relationship shapes my living. I think my sharing that with the other would “challenge him to consider what claim the Gospel might have upon his life.”

  • GaryLyn

    Robert,
    I’ll say again that for me Jesus is Messiah, and I hold to that truth passionately and tentatively. Your response suggests that you don’t believe that is really possible. And I don’t see any way that this will lead to me wasting myself in hedonism until the world ends or I die a meaningless, eternal death. And it definitely won’t stop me from reading and participating in religious blogs. :)

  • Patrick

    “It began at Babel”?

    What?


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