I wrote yesterday about the challenges being faced by the Episcopal Church (ECUSA). The question behind the question that I raised is the issue of pluralism. How dangerous is pluralism? For that matter, what is pluralism and why should serious Christians really care about this question?
Let's begin with the fact that not everyone practices the same religion. If this were not so we wouldn't need to consider the question of pluralism or Christian apologetics. Increasingly tolerance is being defined in various pluralistic ways, ways that present serious challenges to orthodox Christians and Christianity. But few bother to define what is actually meant by pluralism before they begin to throw the term around very widely. Some conservative writers have referred to me as a pluralist in spite of the fact that I affirm the creeds and councils of the Church and embrace the faith of a historic Protestant denomination. This gross misuse of the term has pushed me to come to terms with the several ways that this term is used, and abused, by modern Christians.
John G. Stackhouse, Jr., in his excellent book, Humble Apologetics: Defending the Faith Today (Oxford, 2002), writes: "Pluralism is a word we encounter all the time, but few speakers or writers pause to define what they mean by it. Pluralism has at least three definitions" (page 3). So what are the three kinds of pluralism Stackhouse sees as germane to serious apologetics?
1. Pluralism as mere plurality. In its most basic form pluralism is simply "the state of more than one." A supermarket presents a plurality of choices to shoppers. Sociologically a proliferation of goods and services, which characterizes all of modern society, is a state of pluralism.
This definition of pluralism is value-free. If there is more than one religion we then have a state of plurality, thus religious pluralism. One can even say that there is a kind of pluralism within Christianity itself since there are a number of versions of Christian faith and practice, not just one.
What has changed, especially in our new globalized context, is that religions exist alongside one another in places where once this could never have happened. Muslims live in my neighborhood and Buddhists attend schools in my community. Whenever someone refers to the number of religious choices that exist in their neighborhood as pluralism this should not mean they embrace another faith or condemn it, per se. It is simply an observable fact. By observing the fact, and embracing it rightly, we can foster peace among all people in the right way.
2. Pluralism as preference. This second use of the term goes a bit further. It affirms "that it is good that there is more than one" religion. Here the use of the term pluralism moves from sociology to theology, or maybe strictly speaking, to ideology. It goes from "what is" to "what ought to be."
But even here the term pluralism has various uses. I might express the wish that there should be several faiths side-by-side, believing that it is good for the larger community in which I live, without embracing another religion as ultimate truth. All of us prefer certain kinds of plurality. Plurality, even in matters of faith and practice, has its limits but a society may well function best where there is some measure of tolerance and respect for different expressions and beliefs deeply held within it. America, though not founded by Muslims for sure, is one society that can tolerate such beliefs in a meaningful way and not disintegrate into "tribal" religious conflicts. The "establishment clause" creates a society where this can happen in a healthy context that is still predominantly Christian. At the same time we can have a distinctly Christian influence within our culture if we are willing to live among others in faith and love. I personally hope that we will follow this course, though this is also being threatened in our time, more by secularists than by people of other faiths.
3. Pluralism as relativism. This level of pluralism goes well beyond the first two. It says that no option is to be preferred to another and no faith is finally right as over against another faith. There are very different ways that people express this kind of pluralism when it comes to religion.
Some practitioners of Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, etc. are convinced that they believe the right faith but then they are very uncomfortable in saying their faith tradition is the best one. This is a type of pluralism that leads to relativism, at least a "soft" type of relativism. There can be a naive relativism here if a person does not, to cite just one example, think Judaism (for example) is to be preferred to Nazism, a critical historical example.
A more sophisticated version of this kind of pluralism as relativism would say that all options are partially good and partially bad. They can all be "appreciated as more or less approximate versions of ultimate reality" (Stackhouse, page 6-7). There is a sense in which this is not relativism at all since people who think this way may still believe someone may hold a better view, or maybe even an ultimately correct view.
This relativistic thinking abounds in the religious realm. New Age faith and practice praises "all religions" (a very common practice in America now) while it still says one way of faith is to be chosen over another. This is what the philosopher John Hick does when he prefers Christianity but leaves the door wide open to all other faiths at the same time.
Radical pluralism argues that no one has universal, objective truth. This kind of pluralism, the sort that seems to be ripping apart older Christian denominations these days, argues that relativism is necessary to be truly open and loving. This becomes, as the late Allan Bloom said, "the only virtue." In this setting the "true believer, " regardless of what they believe, is in deep trouble. It is this sort of relativism that will not only destroy churches but whole societies. When there is no final judgment to be rendered about what is right and wrong, and all we have is competing systems of ethics and religious practices, the one person (or faith) we will not tolerate is the one who believes that they know objective, final truth.