Liberal Whateverism

Liberal Whateverism September 20, 2011

Christian Smith, at HuffPo, advocates a robust religious pluralism instead of a laissez fair whateverism:

Is there not a better way for all of us to take religion more seriously without descending into sectarian conflict? That is one of the most important questions of our day.

I think we need to reject both sectarian conflict and liberal whateverism and commit ourselves instead to an authentic pluralism. Genuine pluralism fosters a culture that honors rather than isolates and disparages religious difference. It affirms the right of others to believe and practice their faith, not only in their private lives but also in the public square — while expecting them to allow still others to do the same. Authentic pluralism does not minimize religious differences by saying that “all religions are ultimately the same.” That is false and insipid. Pluralism encourages good conversations and arguments across differences, taking them seriously precisely because they are understood to be about important truths, not merely private “opinions.” It is possible, authentic pluralism insists, to profoundly disagree with others while at the same time respecting, honoring, and perhaps even loving them. Genuine pluralism suspects the multi-cultural regime’s too-easy blanket affirmations of “tolerance” of being patronizing and dismissive. Pluralism, however, also counts atheist Americans as deserving equal public respect, since their beliefs are based as much on a considered faith as are religious views and so should not be automatically denigrated.

We as a society and a culture have much to learn about ourselves from teenagers and emerging adults, both good and bad. One of those things, I believe, is the need to get beyond not only sectarian conflict but also liberal whateverism, to a more respectful and just world of authentic religious pluralism.

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  • This reminds me of the turn that Princeton’s department of religion took when it became one of the first institutions of its kind to attempt the sort of robust pluralism of which you speak, where people are mutually respected for their religious moorings and journey rather than poo-pooed for “going native.”

    Of course, Rorty advocated a similar turn in Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth for philosophy. What were some of the sources of inspiration for your article when it comes to religion?

  • “It affirms the right of others to believe and practice their faith, not only in their private lives but also in the public square — while expecting them to allow still others to do the same.”

    With regard to the same-sex marriage controversy, does this mean taking C.S. Lewis’ advice?

    “Before leaving the question of divorce, I should like to distinguish two things which are very often confused. The Christian conception of marriage is one: the other is the quite different question – how far Christians, if they are voters or Members of Parliament, ought to try to force their views of marriage on the rest of the community by embodying them in the divorce laws. A great many people seem to think that if you are a Christian yourself you should try to make divorce difficult for every one. I do not think that. At least I know I should be very angry if the Mahommedans tried to prevent the rest of us from drinking wine. My own view is that the Churches should frankly recognise that the majority of the British people are not Christians and, therefore, cannot be expected to live Christian lives. There ought to be two distinct kinds of marriage: one governed by the State with rules enforced on all citizens, the other governed by the Church with rules enforced by her on her own members. The distinction ought to be quite sharp, so that a man knows which couples are married in a Christian sense and which are not.” – C.S. Lewis, ‘Mere Christianity’

  • I wish he had chosen different language than “pluralism,” simply because that’s a negative buzz-word for many of those Smith is trying to persuade. I also wish he’d fleshed out what it means to “seriously disagree,” as a pluralist. I understand what he means (I think), but is there something that separates what he’s talking about from what Richard Mouw and others have been saying for decades? It seems to me he’s arguing more for civility than a true pluralism.

  • DLS

    How did you format the quote, #2?

  • Religious pluralism can mean two things: 1) the acknowledge of a diversity of thought or 2) The belief that all religious belief are intensely personal and thus no person has a right in the society to judge the content of that belief.

    If He is advocating the first, then I applaud the sentiment. If the second, then I’d rather die than surrender the Gospel.

  • If you’re referring to my quote from the article, DLS, you surround it with the “blockquote” HTML tags. I’ll try real quick to represent them below:

    <blockquote> Text you want blockquoted. </blockquote>

  • Fine, as long as this pluralism doesn’t turn on a religion for being exclusivist and evangelistic.

  • I rather like what Christian is doing here — working with the word “pluralism” to expand its meaning, rather than let any one side crimp down on it.

    I remain unconvinced that “genuine pluralism suspects the multi-cultural regime’s too-easy blanket affirmations of ‘tolerance’ of being patronizing and dismissive.” Is it a regime? Who practices “genuine pluralism”? Is “tolerance” a marked word with which — unlike “pluralism” — we’re unwilling to play nicely?

    Yes, Smith is arguing for civility and respect, something that the church has, at shimmering moments in time, done quite well. I long for a return.

  • PSF

    I think a good question to ask of this would be: could we articulate a theological “foundation” for pluralism? I think the answer would be yes, on trinitarian grounds. What we would want to be critical of is a liberal pluralism that claims to be grounded objectively. Not only would that be naive, but it would import cultural-specific (i.e., western liberal) assumptions into its views of religion, including even what counts as religion and what does not.

    As a parallel, Bonhoeffer was involved in yet critical of the ecumenical movement of his day. Involved because larger perspective and collaboration was needed. Critical because it had no theology of being ecumenical, and thus could not effectively define what counted as true religion (i.e., they would not boot out the Nazis).

  • Joe Canner

    Based on Brian McLaren’s review here at Patheos this sounds similar to what R. Kirby Godsey says in Is God A Christian. Here is a useful excerpt regarding relativism versus absolutism (and Godsey’s third alternative, “covenant commitment”) from Brian’s review:

    One thinks of a relativist wife who says, “Yes, I married John, but he’s just another man, and all men are the same, so it didn’t really matter who I chose.” In contrast, one thinks of an absolutist husband who says, “I married Jane, which means that I consider all other women to be ugly, stupid, and abhorrent.” But Godsey’s idea of covenant commitment allows one to say, “I have given my heart to my spouse, and I love my spouse as I love no other person. I assume you have the same kind of devotion to the subject of your love.”

  • Joe Canner

    Sorry, got all excited about learning to use blockquote that I forgot to close the italics tag after Is God a Christian?

  • DRT

    I have a very opinionated opinion on this. My high school was 50% Jewish and most of the rest did not have a culture related to their religion. Christians, in the sense that many of us would support, were by far the minority. I too was not really part of the Christian community as I would now define it.

    The most compelling argument that I have for advocating pluralism [defined as actual respect for others’ beliefs] is that, I bet, most people on this blog would be Jewish if they were born in a Jewish family. And I bet that nearly everyone would be non-Christian if born in Tibet or China.

    The message is that we should not be so arrogant in our righteousness because we have seen the work of Jesus. Blessed are those who believe and have never seen. I think we all here, and I mean all, have actually seen. We know what Christianity is about. But those of other faiths and backgrounds do not have the advantage we have. Please respect them.

  • JohnM

    To the extent pluralism at all has to do with values and consequent life choices I find myself somewhat torn between libertarian indifference toward what those outside the church choose to do on the one hand and confidence in the common good wrought by Christian choices on the other hand.

    The C.S. Lewis quote in #2 expresses what I mean by libertarian indifference (whatever Lewis would have thought of the phrase), in this case toward divorce. Lewis was right. Non-Christians cannot be expected to live Christian lives, and it’s not the mission of the church to make them. Furthermore, “Christian life” is supposed to mean something distinct and recognizable.

    However, are there practical social benefits to making divorce difficult? To monogomous heterosexual marriage? Are these things entirely private matters and if not, as part of the public are Christians really to deny any understanding of the right and wrong? And that’s just one set of related issues. For another example, were not the abolition and civil rights movements driven by Christians “forcing their views”? Did Christians have no business doing that? Those kinds of questions occur to me.

  • Tim

    Overall, this is a very thoughtful and helpful post. However, I disagree with the following on two counts:

    “Pluralism, however, also counts atheist Americans as deserving equal public respect, since their beliefs are based as much on a considered faith as are religious views and so should not be automatically denigrated.”

    (1) Blanket statements on atheists having a “faith based” belief are inappropriate and inaccurate. Perhaps some atheists have “faith” in scientism/naturalism or some naturalist philosophy. But there is no need for them to do so. I know this sounds tired and cliched, but atheists just are people who don’t find the arguments/evidence for God compelling to go from unbelief (the default position) to belief. Same as with faeries or leprechauns. Lack of belief is the default position; one does not need “faith” to maintain that default position. Some compelling reason is needed to progress from unbelief to belief in faeries or leprechauns, which many don’t feel they have. Same with atheists. *Note that epistemologicaly atheists are normally “agnostic”, but not in the sense that many take it, as undecided or 50/50 probable either way for theistic belief.

    (2) The statement seems to imply that faith is the reason to respect atheist’s beliefs. This, in my view, is an unwarranted elevation of faith. Faith can be a beautiful thing. It can also be a tragic thing. It can expand your horizon, or it can stifle your mind. There’s nothing inherently “good” about faith. It’s how it’s applied. And there are other competing virtues for faith. Such as critical thinking for example. Or intellectual courage. I think it is far more appropriate to respect atheists for these traits rather than the far more seldomly relevant “faith.”

  • DRT

    Tim, I want to defend the atheist position.

    Consider it this way. The fundamental decision is to consider whether you feel it is rational and believable to conceive of a god vs. there not being a god. Immediately you are faced with the decision about the definition of the god that you want to consider. I, myself, reject the god of most religions, including Christianity in the popular form. So if someone is like me, and they reject the popular form of the Christian god, then they are inherently atheist because they believe in a god that is not defined by those parameters.

    I was there. I rejected the god of the religions I knew about, including Christianity.

    But I found there is a manifestation, an understanding, a relationship, with the god of some religion that could meet the need and be the object of my search. But that god was not the god they teach about in church on Sunday. It was not the god they teach in popular Christianity. But it is the god that I now reach towards.

    I consider atheists to be very spiritual people. Certainly some are not and are purely shallow. But, and I think I can say this with certainty, *all* atheists that I have known personally are thoughtful, moral, seeking people who have not found the god that they would expect, or can respect.

    Two of my three children are now in this camp. They are very feeling, compassionate people who could believe in the god I believe in if they could see that god more broadly. I have never shared my tortured journey with them but they are currently in a place similar to where I once was. How can there be such a god, as DRT currently believes there is, when his religion seems to be antithetical to the concept DRT talks about.

    Atheists deserve a voice in the town square. They deserve a voice that Christians need to pay attention to. What happens when atheists are the ones holding the moral high ground in the world? Wouldn’t that be an indictment of the Christian god? Isn’t that, perhaps, the way it is right now?

  • JohnM

    DRT – “What happens when atheists are the ones holding the moral high ground in the world? Wouldn’t that be an indictment of the Christian god?”

    No, it wouldn’t be an indictment of God it would be an indictment of professing Christians. But don’t worry, it’s not the case anyway. Christians aren’t as bad as the liberal ones would have you believe.

  • Ray Ingles, #2:

    CS Lewis’ advice, is I think, still the best advice for Christians, and should apply to the issue of same-sex relationships too.

    On the broader issue of pluralism; I see two main problems:
    1. Pure secularism which see this as a “compromise” to the irrational
    2. Fundamentalism that considers the public sphere to be the rightful domain of religious prescription.

    I personally advocate pluralism, in principle… but I think the loudest voices at either end of the spectrum will always make the marketplace appear chaotic, and thus undermine the perceived efficacy of pluralism.

  • Taylor

    Simply going off the dictionary definition of pluralism, it seems like Smith is trying to redefine, or worse, expand the term. I’m uncomfortable with expanding the meaning of a word which has a justifiably negative connotation, especially when we have existing terms for this style of connecting that serve quite nicely. Two that come to mind are dialogue and respect.

    I have to wonder if Smith’s word choice is too much a concession to other faiths which will result in giving not only their truth’s equal footing with Christianity, but their lies as well.

  • Dave Nederhood

    Need coffee.
    Brain not used to this much blog-think.
    Great article and responses.
    Refreshing to see more than the typical “am not” “are too” BS
    Really appreciated this quote from Smith:

    pop karma is shallow, naïve and perhaps even disrespectful to the religious traditions which teach it. Claiming it as many emerging adults do is somehow like stealing candy from the Bhagavad Gita giftshop.

    Still need more coffee.

  • Hector_St_Clare


    Oh, did you mean atheists like Kim Jong Il?

    Frankly, most of my family are atheist or agnostic, and I’ve not known most of them to be much different in their morality than other people of their social milieu.

  • Amos Paul

    This. All of this. The Catholic church has even declared freedom of religion a fundamental and God-given human right. Aren’t we supposed to respect rights? And isn’t the investigation and mutual respect of various people’s ideas the investigation of something God created, if only cast in a different (perhaps wrong-oriented) light?

    Healthy Christianity needs to embrace respect and loving dialogue external to itself.