Some typically sharp observations from a 1995 essay by Robert Jenson (Either/Or).
First, on pluralism and the ideology of pluralism.
What’s new in the modern age isn’t the reality of competing faiths: “The presence of contrary faiths and practices within a society often causes formidable problems, as America now experiences with unwonted intensity but as has always been the case. With due respect to some pop theologians, none of this is newly discovered: Isaiah or St. Paul knew more about the theory and practice of a religiously and ideologically plural world than do all of the seminary and religion faculties of California” (25).
Even the ideology of pluralism isn’t new, but arises in the imperial age of late antiquity. As an ideology, pluralism is “a rule for deciding what ideas or practices, besides pluralism itself, are to be approved. Tolerable ideas and practices are those that lead us unreservedly to applaud the fact of pluralism, and good ones are those that actively promote the proliferation of pluralism both factual and ideological.”
The ironic effect of this rule is that it silences many people: “The more pluralist the ideology that rules, the less are certain convictions admitted to the public arena.” This is widely recognized. Jenson is more interested in probing what sorts of speech is excluded as offensive: “So far as my observation reaches, the silenced are almost always those who if they spoke would say something characteristically Jewish or Christian or Islamic. Try, for example, arguing that unrestricted permission to abort the unborn is a social and political evil at a party in Manhattan or a college town in Minnesota. Your arguments will not be rebutted; heads will merely be turned as from one who has audibly broken wind. If, on the other hand, you argue what is in fact the conventional opinion, you will be praised for courage and compassion” (26).
Then, on fundamentalism.
Jenson points out that the term has a recognizable meaning when used of early 20th-century American Protestants. Applied to Jews, the term has to stretch beyond normal bonds; when applied to Islam, he says, the real meaning of the term comes into focus:
“whatever would an Islamic fundamentalist be — in the commentaries and news releases the very worst and most prevalent kind? Islam has a rigorously simple message: ‘There is no God but God and Muhammad is his prophet.’ How are fundamentals and nonfundamentals to be distinguished here? Talk of Islamic fundamentalism finally betrays what the speakers are doing. The phrase ‘Islamic fundamentalists’ turns out, on inspection of its use, to denote Muslims who discountenance the existence of a society or state independent of God’s will, who find God’s will stated in Quran and Sharia, and who therefore think that the state should conform society to Quran and Sharia. But this is the definition simply of a Muslim; ‘Islam’ means universal individual and collective submission to God’s will” (28).
“Fundamentalist Muslims” are just “followers of the Prophet who have not been captured by the cultural imperialism of the modern West, or are trying to recover from such captivity, and who therefore do not approve a wall between church and state, absolute individual autonomy, and other Western Enlightenment principles.” If pluralism were truly pluralistic, “were not pluralist ideology what it hiddenly is, pluralists would love them for their differences from us” (28).“Fundamentalism” is a tool of the ideology of pluralism, a label attached to those deemed irrational and socially disruptive, who are deemed to be violate the rules of pluralist engagement.
Jenson highlights the astounding theological claim made by pro-choice advocates, and now enshrined in Supreme Court jurisprudence:
“Pro-life attempts to call their opponents pro-abortionists, as if being pro-abortion were worse than being pro-choice, are misguided. The decision whether or not to abort is indeed a choice uniquely important for the pregnant woman; and merely therefore it must, according to the devisers and defenders of present law, be in her individual sole discretion. That is the whole and singular argument and position, and no other considerations are allowed to count against its force. What is in fact at stake for those who demand a right to abort at will is the understanding and practice of individual choice itself as the ultimate value of life, superseding even justice and even justice in a lethal matter, if it comes to that.”
This reaches almost self-parody in Planned Parenhood v. Casey, in Kennedy’s famous mystical statement that liberty is “the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”
Jenson finds the language strangely familiar: Believers will “recognize this supposed liberty to define existence, meaning, the universe, and human life as the freedom these theologies ascribe uniquely to their God. It is in fact a freedom of which no one ever dreamed apart from the influence of these theologies. According to the Abrahamic religions, there is indeed one whose personhood is defined by such liberty — and only one” (32).
In short, “Jews and Christians and Muslims stipulate the difference between God and what is not God by recognizing a particular mode of freedom in God and denying it to all else; the National Organization for Women and its allies claim explicitly and precisely that freedom for themselves, and the court has now written that claim into our law. What is asserted by ‘pro-choice’ ideologists and the court is straightforwardly a theology, one of an explicitly anti-biblical sort” (32).
Finally, Jenson says that behind the so-called culture war is the real war, which is about modernity’s rejection of the God of Abraham: “the swirl of cultural storms has a cyclonic center: the memory of cultural authority exercised by the biblical God, the God of Abraham. We are at war about culture just insofar as culture is the body of religion. It has finally come to this: After centuries of love-hate between biblical religion and the Western civilization it has enabled and regularly perturbs, we are increasingly pressed to be either for the Lord or against him” (24).
The issue in our cultural battles is a theological one: Do we or do we not acknowledge that there is a God who has His own thoughts, makes His own plans and choices, independently of us, a God who is not a projection, neither a dream nor a nightmare, but a living, jealous God with whom we must reckon.