Contra Pluralism, Part II

Here is another set of questions that I had to answer for the class I’m in called “Religions, Salvation and the Gospel.”

1. At the popular level, why the rise in religious pluralism? What is going on in the minds of people that causes many to gravitate to religious pluralism?

I am inclined to attribute this phenomenon largely to the course of western history over the last few centuries. I mean chiefly to point to Enlightenment thought and the broader context of classical liberalism, with its hallmark ideology of democracy and overweening celebration of individual rights and tastes. Concomitant with this is the rise of modernism and its celebration of scientific progress. And related, in turn, is the fact of two world wars in the 20th century which left in their wake a global war-weariness; consequently, there followed a half century in which war was removed from western centers of civilization and only waged in areas which the West could afford to think of as the margins of the world. Thus, western leaders were able to devote their energies to diplomatic conversation of the sort wherein the arts, philosophy and mass communication and entertainment media became the major shapers of intercontinental culture. Ironically, this relative “peace” and comfort was a necessary (and perhaps also a sufficient) cause for the rise of postmodernism as a reaction to the failures of modernism to save the world. All of this weaves together into the current world picture. And so it is that most adults in the West today have grown up in a milieu of ‘tolerance,’ at first won by modernism, but still demanded—though in a slightly different way—by postmodernism. To both mods and pomos, however, the notion of religious exclusivism smacks of a backward, rude, uncivilized and even dangerous trajectory.

In this context, people are finding themselves drawn to nicer, more polite (even generous?) religious ideologies, like those proffered by pop-culture icons such as Oprah Winfrey. Finally, it is important to add that people in the world are offered quite a few voices from within what at least seem to be legitimate expressions of the Christian faith—voices which seem to encourage, rather than challenge, their pluralistic impulses. Examples abound, ranging from long-established “mainline,” liberal, Fosdickian Protestantism to fresher, more emergent trends. Sometimes, one of these Christian voices is given a microphone by the media culture, and the subtle power of the pluralism is almost overwhelming. (As an example, I recall, a year or so ago, watching Ann Curry of NBC’s Today Show, with tears of joy and adulation, interviewing William P. Young, author of The Shack. )

2. Is the criticism by pluralists that there is very little to discern the ethical capacity of Christians from non-Christians a valid critique? Why or why not?

Quite so! And if it is to be agreed upon that that bare criterion is the sole or most significant ground upon which the arguments are to be made, then it is indeed a very damning (joke intended :-)) indictment upon the exclusivity of Christianity. But the question of whether practical ethical comparisons actually should hold such pride of place is hardly settled by the mere fact of its use by thinkers like John Hick. By Hick’s own estimation, this criteria seems to level the playing field, rather than leaving Christianity behind other faiths. Still, it is a point well-taken which says that a faith which purports to be known by the love (et al virtues) of its adherents may fairly be questioned if that love does not stand out as unique.

It seems to escape the notice of critics of the ethical living of Christians that the Bible has not failed to notice the problem. From Genesis to Revelation, the problem of God’s children being something of an embarrassment to their Father is a significant theme. Given that the book which “fundamentalists” (a term which Hick applies to anyone with the provincial, backwater belief that the Bible is in some way inerrant!) believe to be God’s word shows God’s ill-behaved people being shamed by the better behavior of those who are NOT His people, it seems to me that Hick has not gone far enough in exploring the idea. We need to see the Bible’s own treatment of this theme and ask: What the heck is this all about?! What does God mean by including as a significant theme in His book – and, therefore, in the plotline of the story of the world – the truth that His people are often worse than unbelievers? If that line of question leads to a pluralistic conclusion, then so be it. But it remains to be seen just what will be uncovered in such an excursion into the biblical text.

3. What are the problems inherent in the assertion that the religions of the world are all receptions of and reactions to the same ineffable God?
I can do no better than the following paragraph from GOMU , ch.4,III,C:

It is ironic that in this postmodern age of tolerance, religious pluralists have ignored their own criticisms of the “intolerant” faiths and established themselves as the evaluators of the truth claims of other religions. What is their vantage-point that privileges their judgments? On the basis of this model, it is not the individual religions that have access to the truth; ultimately it is the Western religious pluralist, who insists that each religion must be seen in the context of the others, before it can be evaluated. This means that the western doctrine of religious pluralism is defined as the only valid standpoint for evaluating individual religions.

I have typed this paragraph because it contains the very thought that has been pounding in my brain from the beginning of my considerations of pluralism. I think this gets to the heart of the problem with the idea that all religions are just so many legit responses to the one true God.

4. Describe and critique arguments for pluralism that reference the complexity of the doctrines of inspiration and the incarnation.
In reading the arguments put forward by John Hick along this line, I find myself somewhat confused. Or if I do understand him, I find his reasoning to be pathetically circular – in fact, hypocritically so.

Among Hick’s original writings, I have only read his chapter “A Pluralist View” in Ockholm and Phillips’ Four Views book. However, according to GOMU, Hick finds it unfair and unacceptable to define salvation in Christian terms. It is considered to be a commission of the petitio principii fallacy: “it is begging the question to define salvation as being forgiven and reconciled to God based upon the death and resurrection of Jesus and then conclude that Christianity alone is able to offer the way of salvation.” I find this objection quite hard to entertain in light of the fact that, throughout his treatment of both Bibliology and Christology, Hick runs in circles and employs the same faulty logic of which he accuses exclusive Christianity.

One example of this is to be found in Hick’s two-minded attitude toward Scripture. Early on in his essay, he pronounces a wholesale devaluation on the claims of the Christian Scriptures, specifically and repeatedly saying that the gospels cannot be relied upon to be rendering the actual teachings of Jesus, but only an agendized version of them from some wing of the nascent, but already diverse church. Later, however, he seeks to bolster his religious views by supporting them from some of the scriptural teaching of Jesus (e.g. “Jesus taught us,” p.58). Apparently, Hick finds the Bible to be a credible witness to the teachings of Jesus whenever those teachings seem to favor his theology.

His arguments regarding the incarnation, as well as other points of Christology, show the same sort of double-standard. His entire thesis is that all of the world’s major faiths, though they are “such different and incompatible belief systems” (p. 46), are equally valid as true and viable paths to the Real. To say this, is to operate within the realm of paradox. Moreover, as he goes about setting aside one Christian distinctive after another, Hick basically puts forward a model of his belief which is nothing less than a Hindu-Buddhist worldview; again, paradox looms large. But when he makes his attack on Christian theology, he claims to be showing that it is illogical. Specifically, he rejects the doctrine of the dual nature of Christ, because of the “paradoxical character of the idea” (p.55).

5. Why the turn to theocentrism over Christocentrism in pluralist theology?
A couple of years ago, after I preached a Sunday morning sermon, I was approached by a man named Jerry who happened to be visiting that morning. He sat with me and one of our elders for about an hour after the service had ended. He told a bizarre story about how God had appeared to him and told him that he was to be his special messenger, and so on and so on. Some distance into the conversation, Paul, my elder, asked, “So how does Jesus fit into all of this?” That question was the beginning of the end of the conversation. Once Paul had insisted that Jerry make sense of his story in light of who Jesus is, Jerry was soon ready to move on to another church to spread his message (whatever it was – I never did get it). I learned an old truth afresh that morning: Jesus Christ is a separator among God-talkers.

John MacArthur, Jr. has rightly observed that false doctrine always cries the loudest about unity, because it cannot stand under the scrutiny of the truth. I think similarly, this call by religious pluralists for more God and Spirit talk really amounts to so much squirming out from under the exclusiveness of the Lord Jesus Christ. Devising a vain thing, these people cannot bear to submit to the limitations of the truth of YHWH-and-His-Anointed (Ps.2; Rev.11:15). “Let us tear their fetters apart,” they seem to be saying, “and cast their cords away from us!” But like the builders of the tower at Shinar, they still want God and heaven—just on their own terms.

6. Critique the turn to Pneumatology by Hodgson, Knitter or Samartha.
John Hick, though he is lousy at it, seems to be committed to logical reasoning (the laws of identity, non-contradiction, and the excluded middle are constantly running in the background of his arguments). At one point, he rightly notes that his reasoning is more inductive than deductive (p. 44). In contrast, Stanley Samartha, at least as represented in GOMU, ch.4,II,C,3., has left logic far behind. Instead, he has embraced “the mystery of God” (n.98), a thing which Hick would do well to consider in a way more like Samartha’s .

The problem with Samartha’s choice (and I would think that of all pluralists, ultimately) of mystery over logic is that it is too whimsical. If we are going to let “mystery” override reason, at what point should we do it? I will say we must do it by following the lead of biblical revelation. Thus, scriptural doctrines such as the dual nature of Christ (which the Bible does teach, and Nicea and Chalcedon merely reformulate) or the dual nature of the Scriptures themselves (i.e. verbal inspiration), while mysterious and somewhat unbounded by human reason, are true. I, for one, would certainly be willing to entertain with pluralists (and inclusivists?) the idea that a biblical doctrine of hell may be in tension with a biblical doctrine of the love of God. But even if that is to be agreed upon, why could we not continue to hold to it as one of the “mysteries” brought to us by the Scriptures?

How can Christ be fully God and fully man? ‘I don’t know,’ we say, ‘it blows my mind! But I believe it, because the Scriptures teach it.’ How can an infinite God who is love consign people to eternal perdition? The same answer can be given: ‘I don’t know; it blows my mind! But I believe it, because the Scriptures teach it.’ Without such humility before the revelation of God’s word, then our interplay of “mystery” and reason becomes undisciplined, arbitrary – even whimsical.

And speaking of humility, I need to say a word about Samartha’s mention of Christians being seen as having an “arrogance which is at variance with Christlike humility.” I find this to be plain funny. If somehow, it could be arranged for Stanley Samartha and Jesus of Nazareth to meet across time, I am confident that Samartha would find Jesus to be arrogant and not humble. 🙂 The fact is that the biblical call for believers to follow our Lord in humility is about self-sacrifice, not a sacrifice of doctrinal truth for the sake of making cozy with pagan friends.

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10 thoughts on “Contra Pluralism, Part II

  1. I don’t have time to finish reading this right now… so you might say later, but could you define pluralism for me? Then it might make more sense when I come back!

  2. It means different things in different contexts, of course, but as I have used it here on my blog, it is religious pluralism. In the textbook written by my prof, it is defined as “the idea that many religions are salvific, often times marching under the banner of multiple paths to God.”
    This is different from universalism, which says everybody will be saved (eventually). It’s also different from Christian inclusivism, which basically says that, although Christianity is the true/best faith, people of other faiths can be saved through a sincere seeking after God within their own systems. And of course, it’s different from annihilationism, which says that unbelievers do not suffer eternal torment in hell, but are merely wiped out of existence.
    I am sorta bummed that my footnotes did not show up, when I copied in this post from a Word doc. 😦
    My prof, Todd Miles, just wrote a book called God of Our Many Understandings? That’s what GOMU means. 🙂

  3. I didn’t know you had a blog, but Kortney posted a link to it so people could wish you happy birthday. First thing’s first, Happy birthday! 🙂

    I found this post very interesting, and have spent a lot of time thinking about these things on my own. Sometimes it is hard to find the line between being overly critical/judgmental of peoples’ ideas, especially of who God is and how He relates/interracts with us, and allowing for a god who is so desperate for love and approval that he’ll become whatever an individual wants him to be. The current culture, as you mentioned, makes this particularly difficult.

    I just finished reading The Shack a couple weeks ago, and while I really enjoyed the story and some of the ideas the author had regarding relationships, at one point “God” says that he knows what his children are going to do in advance so he can never be disappointed. Sounds really great initially, but it didn’t quite sit well with me. He may know what we will do, but He also knows what we are capable of, and wants us to live to our full potential, so it is hard to imagine that He would be so nonchalant about it. While I think there is a certain amount of truth to the image of God the author painted, I think he took it way too far in that suddenly God possesses the personality of a dog- anxious for affection and willing to overlook all offenses regardless of the intent of the person involved.

    Anyways, I have really missed your Bible/Worldview classes. Hope all is well with you and your family.

    Take care.

    • It’sgreat to hear from you, Kristy! Thanks for this thoughtful reply!
      I quite agree with you about The Shack. While I understood and appreciated what Young was trying to do, and certain pages were really moving, I felt that the book, over all, was too _____________ [many things can fill in the blank].
      I am personally in a time of openness to many different ideas, theological, political, philosophical, etc. I feel, as I’m sure most of us do, that deep, visceral feeling in the pit of my stomach that it is an awful thing that God would send so many people to eternal torment in hell… And I can put together some pretty good, semi-biblical, mostly philosophical arguments for the idea that God might bring many more (perhaps all?) people into eternal, heavenly relationship with Himself — more, that is, than we evangelical Christian biblicists can see clear to believe. As I take this seminary course, and read the arguments from universalists, pluralists, and inclusivists, I am keeping an open mind. But in the end, it is the Scripture that must win out in the forming of my beliefs. If I am to reach the conclusion that people can be saved who do not put faith in the Lord Jesus, it will have to come through the Bible. And right now, there doesn’t seem to be much room for the idea of a salvation apart from Christ.
      Thanks again, Kristy! I hope you will visit The Long War again and leave great comments! 🙂

      • I have also become more open-minded of late. Especially with all the seeming contradictions in the Bible, it seems like God is more concerned with people being “real” and worshiping him in their own genuine manner than conforming to a form. He seems to be pretty accommodating; however, credit must be given where credit is due, especially in regards to Christ and His sacrifice.

        Something else I’ve been thinking about a lot is the whole notion of “Evangelical Christian” which I grew up learning. My problem with it is that “evangelizing” requires first that a person casts judgment on the person they are trying to “save,” and in doing so it seems like they are playing god. Last year, the vast majority of my friends were international students, which was a very eye opening and exciting experience, but most of them either did not believe in God or were of another religion, such as Muslim. What I found, though, was that they welcomed me into their circles of friends, and asked me about my faith, and because they asked they were open to my answer.

        I will certainly be visiting The Long War again.

        Take care.

  4. Extremely well written! I enjoyed reading these sets of answers. I think the fundamental challenge of Christianity today is how do we teach absolute moral truth to a society that believes truth is relative? I think one of the best sources of knowledge and inspiration can come from the earliest church fathers (Origen, Justin Martyr, Augustine, John Chrysostom, and so on) who lived in a pluralistic society or in a society in which Christianity was legal but was faced by centuries old pagan religions. The more I read of them and read their works, the most I see history repeating itself. I am near completing “The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God” which all about the doctrine, mindset, and writings of the early church fathers. Great book.
    I recently completed an essay on the theme of power in the book of Job. That was a fun one to write and research.
    Hope all is going well for you and the family!

    • Hey, Robert!
      Thanks for the feedback!
      Your recent studies sound fascinating! I look forward to your next visit to our house. We need to rap about these things!
      What do you think about putting your paper on my ‘Guest Posts’ page? I would love it, if you would be willing. 🙂
      If you would like to do that, just e-mail it to me, and I’ll put it on!
      In any case, thank you, my brother, for the encouraging interaction that you give! 😉

  5. Sorry, short on time, but I will try to make some quick responses. Concerning question one’s comments. I believe we both know that this so-called scientific progress is not progress at all due to the fact that progress would benefit mankind in general, and it is painfully obvious that due to the hidden fascist puppet masters, that we are be increasingly controlled all the way to the slaughter. Hence the term “sheeple”. Much has been documented on the fake swine influenza driving fear into many of the proleteriat, that lack critical thinking skills. This fear strategem is an incessant tactic used by diluted fascists. In short, for science to be referred to as a progress, it must progress we the people.
    In reference to question two. I am responding to this particular of pluralism, which is Christians not looking different, or being dise, a Latin for being set apart. In many cases Christians may seem to do the same actions, or make similar choices. This would immediately be confusing to the world, and they would seek to make justifications for their own actions, but this is the very item that separates Christians from the very world that is confused, and causing them to make these accusations of Christians. Making accusations to justify ourselves as Christians is utter nonsense, and a vain waste of time since we are already justified by our Lord Jesus, and we are impotent to make any justification. Christians ought to be about the crux of the work of our Lord, which is in fact-reconciliation, and all of its attributes leading up to reconciliation. If this was a Christian’s daily focus unto the Lord, along with the tender telling of truth as demanded by God. Much of the confusion over this matter is because the world is busy justifying their own actions, looking as if they are easy-going, forgiving, understanding, and yes-tolerant. But this is satanic brain-washing, doing none other than making folks feel good about themselves so they do not “feel the need to be cleansed, and reconciled to anybody. There is much to discern, and say . . . but I am pressed for time.
    Until next time,
    Tim Stewart

    • Hey, Timmy —
      Thanks for the interaction!
      I want to respond to a couple of really salient points in your comments.
      First, I love this sentence: “Making accusations to justify ourselves as Christians is utter nonsense, and a vain waste of time since we are already justified by our Lord Jesus, and we are impotent to make any justification.”
      Tremendously insightful!
      Second, you are right about the idea that much of what unbelievers are up to when they point to hypocrisy (etc.) in the church is really a smoke-screen to distract from their own iniquity. Some, to be sure, are really thoughtful people who want to consider the testimony of God, but find that the poor example set by so many of us who claim to be His representatives is a real detractor in their estimation of Christianity. Especially in dialogue with such people, we must humbly acknowledge our failure as bearers of the image of Christ.
      But those who are just lashing out at the short-comings of Christians as a means of avoiding the gospel need to be confronted in that light, gently but firmly. May the Lord give us the grace and wisdom to see the difference.
      This is something I was recently reading:
      “Self-justification and scapegoating are ancient strategies used by sinners who are unwilling to be honest about their own sinfulness and to submit to God as he has revealed himself in Christ. Complaints about the failures of the church are too frequently an excuse for people’s stubborn resistance to the Spirit of God, who makes them aware of their own sinfulness and of the changes that Christ will demand if they follow him. The church should be willing to admit its failures, but it is as a community of self-confessed but pardoned sinners that we invite other sinners to accept God’s grace and join the company of those who live in eager anticipation of the day when God’s grace will perfect us in the likeness of Christ, after whose image we were created.”
      — Terrence Tiessen

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