Pluralism as Privilege
One is never more aware of pluralism’s sticky presence then when sitting in a round table discussion about faith. Like a wad of well-chewed gum that has been stepped in again and again, the strings of religious thought and life are many, and often messy, sticking to our souls at times unbeknownst and unannounced. In the end, the sticky web is not only hard to identify for what it once was, but everyone feels polluted by it. On a bad day, this is my hopeless image of the pluralistic world around me. In this picture, pluralism is far more than a mere plurality of options, but an intricate, gooey mesh of amalgamating outlooks, ideas, objectives and practices—through which all shoes must step.
Our current cultural landscape takes on both kinds of pluralism in this sense—plurality and relativism. There are more options and isms at our reach than we know what to do with. There is also the sense that all of these options are relative, easily mingled, and chosen by personal preference. For the Christian who confesses one choice that is not relative, chosen not because it is preferred but because it is true, the oddity is obvious, the unpopular stance leaving the pluralist convinced of Christian arrogance and the Christian wondering if he must resign himself to a life of cultural naysaying. And while the former will likely retain the conviction of Christian arrogance, perhaps for the later there is another option. The Christian indeed lives in a world where the challenge of pluralism is greater than ever because the scope of pluralism is extraordinary. Yet while this may lend itself to gloomy pictures of being stuck in horrific webs of chewing gum, the reality of this pluralistic context can also carry with it images of opportunity and hope.
As it did for Paul who used the signs of all religions to specifically encounter one, pluralism can present an occasion for believers to engage a world that is “very religious in every way” (Acts 17:22). It can bring out questions that may not otherwise have been asked, both for ourselves and others—Is Buddhism really claiming anything different than Christianity? Is this particular belief something scriptural or something cultural?—thus serving as a catalyst for examination and discovery. Our pluralistic context can also offer a chance to live without the social power to which Christians have grown accustomed, without the cultural control, or the comfortable existence that so often becomes the faith’s downfall. Author John Stackhouse adds: “[M]ulticulturalism and extensive religious plurality can offer an opportunity for Christians to shed the baggage of cultural dominance that has often impeded or distorted the spread of the gospel. It may be, indeed, that the decline of Christian hegemony can offer the Church the occasion to adopt a new and more effective stance of humble service toward societies it no longer controls.”(1)
There is no doubt the present world of faith is riddled with the stickiness of choice and the command of preference. But for those willing to receive it, our current context can be a fruitful gift. Like Paul, we will no doubt discover that the obstacles often stand taller than we realized and the words we have to offer fall short. Our pluralistic world wants very little to do with a great many of the things Christians profess. For the Christian, this means it is all the more vital to live the apologetic we attempt to preach among the barrage of choices before our neighbors. While we cannot profess that following Christ will bring fortune or erase hardship, or that discipleship will come easily or without cost, we can portray the coherence of the Christian worldview, the primacy of Christ beside life’s inescapable questions, and the hopeful reality of forgiveness and new life. In the words of one of the first believers to recognize the apologetic of authentic living in a world of many gods, idols and ideologies: we are to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with the God we profess. This, the world will notice whether they are listening or not.
Into this unique culture, the Christian offers the message of Christ crucified, a message that runs counter to every culture that has ever heard it.
(1) John Stackhouse, Jr., Humble Apologetics: Defending the Faith Today (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 36.