Why Are Christians Scared of Pluralism?
October 26, 2010

 

Religious pluralism has existed for thousands of years, but we here in the U.S. have been hearing more about it lately, primarily from Christians. Of course, some other major religions are not necessarily fans of pluralism either, but their voices aren’t heard quite as much in the U.S. So this post focuses mainly on U.S. Christians.


Brian McLaren recently posted a blog about pluralism. A reader had asked him the best way to be Christian but nonexclusive, and to have true, meaningful conversation with someone of a non-Christian perspective. The reader was trying to interact with a Jewish lady about religion, and she said that, even though he (the Christian) was being respectful, she felt that his… “perspective still makes it all about [Christianity], still all about Jesus, which still diminishes her faith in the end and leaves her feeling like I’ve just found a way to let her sit with me at the table.”

In response, Brian breaks it down into two categories, an elitist “strong Christian identity” and a benevolent “weak Christian identity.” He sees problems with both and proposes an alternative, a “strong biblical narrative that truly makes…room for ‘the other.'” Here’s an excerpt:

Do we have a strong biblical narrative that truly makes as much room for “the other” as for “us?” Do we have a strong view of God that begins with love for all people rather than condemnation of all people? Do we have a strong understanding of Jesus as a gift to everyone rather than a proprietary product exclusively franchised to Christians? And so on …

One big problem with a weak benevolent religious identity is that it in some ways requires others to tone down their religious identity … which often ends up becoming a kind of tolerant secularism that only allows a least-common-denominator of civil religion into public life. Another big problem is that it is a good predictor of the end of a religious tradition … which would mean, over time, that benevolent religions would die off, leaving only combative ones!

Without getting too theological about it, I agree with Brian that the “pluralism question” is a big one. It’s obviously not a question as to whether it’s a valid reality of today’s world (it is). The question is what it means to Christians. And he makes a good point that if you’re Christian, don’t be ashamed of it… But I would add that you should not let your Christian identity make you arrogant, which it often does even if you don’t think so.

I think that if you’re really strong and comfortable in your Christian identity you don’t have to show it. It will just show. Then there’s no need to feel like you must “defend the faith” or open the eyes of “the lost.”

Being just barely Christian, I’m one who often hides my tradition for the sake of meaningful conversation with others. Part of this is because the term “Christian” just has so much baggage along with it, and I’d rather just be considered as a fellow human, searching alongside others for love, meaning, and value.

I also do this in reverse: I hide my agnosticism in order to have real conversation with Christians. Like “Christian” does for non-Christians, the term “agnostic” just seems to cause a nervous tick in most Christians, sending them into an infinite loop of internal conversation to figure out how they can get me saved, while I’m trying to talk to them, and they just don’t seem to really listen. …OR…Maybe it’s also me that sometimes gets in battle mode when I’m in a conversation. I admit it.

But lately I’ve become more secure, more comfortable in my relatively new, looser skin of agnosticism, or more accurately agnostic theism. And while I may not outright mention that I consider myself an agnostic, I no longer hide admissions of doubt or skepticism, but I also don’t state it arrogantly. And ironically, this often (not always) leads to a more honest conversation. But I think it also depends on the comfort of the Christian with whom I’m interacting. If it’s a Christian who feels they need to defend the faith or at least open my eyes to the deception all around me, we probably won’t get anywhere.

It’s okay to not hide your faith, or your lack of faith. If you’re a Christian, you can say it. If you’re not, say it. But let’s not allow our identities of faith to get in the way of our deeper identities, as humans. We all hurt. We all have things that give us joy. Just don’t trample on the other just because you feel you have to put a stake in the ground for your team.

My truth is that you can retain your theological distinctives, those things that you love about your faith perspective, and at the same time check them at the door to some extent when you enter into a conversation with someone from outside your perspective. I’m not saying to hide them. Just stop treating them like battle shields and lances (or even the “Sword of the Spirit). Remove your war colors. Don’t give in to the feeling that says you must defend. That way, you might realize that there’s nothing to fear from listening.

That’s why I personally say “Yes!” to pluralism. It can help us all dig deeper, beyond our tired catch phrases and marketing ploys, to the part of us that we all have in common. The part that seeks and listens for truth wherever it can be found.

But who knows, maybe there’s something I should be scared of. Did I miss a memo?

***

A Clarification…

I want to add here, or clarify, that pluralism does in fact include Christians. Including Christians who may be concerned about pluralism. I apologize if I implied otherwise.

It’s easy to say about our conservative Christian friends that “they” are the ones who need to get with the program, and that it’s their fault our world has not progressed beyond exclusive systems. In fact, by blaming those resistant to pluralism, we are perpetuating a climate of fear and accusation.

Maybe we can try to enact the idea that everyone really is welcome and deserves to be listened to. I think all of us have some perspective that can help fill a blind spot for someone else. Not just those of us who think of ourselves as the enlightened ones. 😉

The point I’m trying to make is the importance of not hiding what makes us, us…while at the same time maintaining an open attitude. Openness is the key.

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Heretics in the Emerging Church? Oh My!
February 9, 2010

At least one of the three of you who read this may (1) like theological discussions and/or (2) wonder what I think about the Emerging Church. This one’s for you. For those who don’t care about this, read on anyway and you may find it mildly interesting.

First off, I do not consider myself “involved” in the Emergent movement. I may have a few years ago, but I felt like things started getting a bit too hip for my dorky self, so I tapered off on following everyone and everything with the movement, but I still keep in touch. I have many friends who are still closely involved, some serving with the coordinating council for Emergent Village and such. And some people may still consider me an Emergent-type of Christian, but I’d respectfully disagree, mainly because I feel in many ways I’m just barely a Christian at all….but come to think of it, that’s what some say about emergents anyway. Also, I am part of a faith community that some may consider an emergent church, although most people in my church wouldn’t say that – because we just are what we are.

Second, keep in mind that Emergent is a pretty fuzzy term. Some people think it’s a revolutionary movement similar to the Great Schism and the Protestant Reformation; others think it’s nothing more than a passing fad that either is already dead or will die out soon. Some people consider it purely deconstructive; others consider it conversational. And some say it’s absolutely liberal and Marxist while others say it incorporates conservative evangelicals, liberal mainliners and everyone in between those spaces and even those outside of it all.

Now, to either their credit or blame, depending on your view, Emergent “leaders” like Brian McLaren and Doug Pagitt and many others, through their books and through personal conversation, have inspired me. Brian’s A Generous Orthodoxy and other books were a huge breath of fresh air that I felt helped to liberate me in many ways. And many books and conversations later, I really feel free in my spiritual perspective. Sure, they may have made me a heretic, but at least I’m free.

But I still often agree with many of the sentiments expressed in Emerging church-type conversations, although I find the whole scene getting too cerebral for me these days. And while at one gathering of thought leaders a couple years ago, I felt fully included, like even though I couldn’t claim all the correct traditional beliefs, I was fully welcome to freely express myself right alongside the likes of N.T. Wright, Richard Rohr, Brennan Manning, and others. It was beautiful. I’ll post a video or two some time. …But at the same time I also felt a bit excluded, like I wasn’t cool enough because I wasn’t published, I didn’t have a doctorate, and I didn’t wear designer sunglasses indoors. But that’s another story. The point is that I am familiar with emergent and it is one train of thought that helped free me from an obligation of having to always stay within the accepted traditional boundaries and be “right.”

Anyway, in addition to other recent notable announcements concerning the Emergent movement, a recent blog made a bit of a stir among the Emergent crowd, particularly in Grand Rapids, which to some is known as one of the hubs for Christian progress. In it Jeremy Bouma, who has been somewhat of an Emergent insider, announced his theological departure from the movement. For his next couple posts, he will continue detailing his theological concerns with Emergent leaders like Brian McLaren and Doug Pagitt. Brian has just dropped new book called A New Kind of Christianity, which for many will serve as a long-awaited treatise that addresses specific theological questions concerning the ideas behind this new-ish church movement.

Without going into details, Jeremy’s main criticisms revolve around the idea that Emergent theology is based on old ideas that were declared heretical centuries ago by church authorities. He accuses Pagitt of neo-Pelagianism, which essentially says that Adam’s “original sin” doesn’t really affect human nature today. Jeremy then basically defines McLaren as a Unitarian Universalist, which sort of asserts that he think all paths lead to God and no one will go to hell, if it even exists. So what do I think?

“Because We Said So.” Is That Enough?

I agree with Jeremy, Brian and Doug. While theological arguments abound in defense of both sides, it’s easy for me to say, “Yes” to all. I agree with Jeremy that yes, much of Emergent theology is really nothing new in the grand scheme. Many of the propositions are remixes of ideas that may have been deemed heretical in generations past, or at least outside traditional standards. But so what?

Technically speaking, theology is a science. And it is the study of many things we cannot conclusively prove. The whole point of a study like this is to advance our understanding, or at least advance our discussions of our understanding. The idea is to study all the information we have available to us from the past and present, even if present ideas are built on past ones, in order to further our discussions. If we only work within a predetermined framework that already has established the answers to its study and excludes any other questions or answers, and all the answers are based on the authority of the past, that is not a sincere study that seeks to advance knowledge; it is merely a study of law. But perhaps that’s what our seminaries prefer — to secure our pool of lawyers. But does that somehow advance the study of God? I don’t think so, and that’s why I say…

  • So what if centuries ago some guys got together and thought they answered all the questions once and for all; defined correct belief in regards to an offshoot of Judaism; defined what letters should make up the Bible and what it does and does not say; defined what God wants or hates, and defined what God looks like according to their current paradigm. For their deep sense of passion and their tireless debate skills, I honor them. But I must say that’s just what they were: master debaters.
  • And so what if theories that questioned the status-quo ages ago have been brought back up today. Without such ideas, we would still think Earth is the center of the universe and we would still literally burn people at the stake instead of only with our words. This would make us  modern-day versions of Nero and others who destroyed Christians…who at the time did not adhere to the traditional, national beliefs of the day. It’s interesting how the the persecuted often become persecutors.

The fact is that with new discoveries come new ideas (and vice versa), which usually have origins in formerly rejected ideas. For example, String Theory was once rejected from almost all discussions on the nature of the universe. Now it is regarded as the root of one of the most widely-accepted “theories of everything” available today. And I would suggest that such theories as this, General Relativity, Chaos Theory, M-Theory and such could offer much to theology, but sadly each of these fields have excluded the other. Regardless, the Emerging Church movement in my mind is a movement of challenging foundational assumptions. It is a science in that way. That’s what we do with principles we really cannot prove. It is in fact a deconstructionist movement , or at least a re-constructionist movement. That’s just what it does: It strips things down and challenges the foundations to find any cracks. And anyone who challenges foundational creeds are heretics…that’s the definition. But still, so what?

Perhaps you can prove that someone is a heretic – that their ideas do not line up with documents drawn up centuries ago – but I don’t see that as a problem. Maybe it’s a problem in the bubble called Christendom, but I really don’t think God is bound by the dimensions of that bubble. And I don’t see why some ideas were deemed outside the “range of acceptable answers” just because Church fathers answered heretics past with a terse, “Because I said so.” Or worse yet, because they claimed to speak on God’s behalf with a terse, “Because I said that God said so.” Or, to put it in modern-day bumper-sticker terms, “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” And tot hose who would ask if I would say that to God if He said “Because I said so,” well first off, Yes. I would. He didn’t seem to have an issue with  Biblical figures doing that. But secondly, men are not God. Those who claim to speak on God’s behalf are no different than the pharaohs and Caesars of millennia past.

For me, “Because I said so” is not a good enough answer. And that’s why I support rebellion. While I may not consider myself an Emergent per-se, it is what I see to be a holy rebellion, and I’m good with that. So, even if Brian and Doug and others could be proven to be heretics according to the terms and conditions set forth ages ago, I really don’t see what the big deal is. So was Jesus.

Just to be clear, all this is not to say that those who adhere to orthodox Christianity are just like the Inquisitors of the middle ages or something. I just felt I needed to encourage people that, just because one challenges core teachings of the church and in fact may be technically labeled a heretic, (1) they are not alone and (2) heresies have given us the religious freedom we experience today. So let’s keep up the tradition of rebellion.