Christianity and Pluralism (1): Groping the Elephant
April 9, 2012 5 Comments
“In a pluralist society such as ours, any confident statement of ultimate belief, any claim to announce the truth about God and his purpose for the world, is liable to be dismissed as ignorant, arrogant, dogmatic. We have no reason to be frightened of this accusation.” (Lesslie Newbigin).
If you don’t believe anyone should impress their beliefs on anyone else, this week’s series is for you. If you do believe you should impress your beliefs on everyone else, this week’s series is for you. If you are simply curious about what it means for a Christian to tell someone about her faith in a culture that often tells us such an act is arrogant and unloving, this week’s series is for you. If Christians have been unloving to you when telling you about their faith, but you know that doesn’t rule out the whole religion, this week’s series is for you.
Starting today, I am going to write a series of five blogs derived from Lesslie Newbigin‘s book The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. This won’t even come close to offering the full scope of his thought on the subject, but I hope it will give you a helpful starting point for thinking about how Christianity/Christians ought to think about themselves in a pluralist society.
I’ll start off with a charming little story, a story supposedly about how no single religion sees the whole of reality. You know that classic story about the blind people groping the elephant? The first guy exclaims, “It’s a tree!” because he’s touching the elephant’s leg. The second says, “It’s a snake!” because he’s holding the trunk. (By the way, I’ve always thought the second guy is the dumbest. He thinks he’s found and holding onto a snake, and he’s announcing it instead of screaming and running away.) Anyway, the story goes on with person after person making an understandable mistake about what they are touching. Only the king, looking down on these poor saps, knows what is really standing in front of him.
This story is the classic, common sense wisdom tale of our time. No one religion, so the story goes, sees the whole of reality. We are all more like blind men groping the elephant than the king on the throne. We each come to each other with our little bit of knowledge from our limited experience, and, if we divulge our beliefs without contradicting anyone else’s, maybe we can piece together more of reality. Maybe all of our beliefs can co-exist peacefully in a big, religious mush-pot.
This is a shortened version of what Newbigin has to say about that pluralistic belief:
“There is an admirable air of humility about the statement that the truth is greater than any one person or any one religious tradition can grasp. The statement is no doubt true, but it can be used against the truth when it is used to neutralize any affirmation of the truth….In the famous story of the blind men and the elephant, so often quoted in the interests of religious agnosticism, the real point of the story is constantly overlooked. The story is told from the point of view of the king and his courtiers, who are not blind but can see that the blind men are unable to grasp the full reality of the elephant and are only able to get hold of part of the truth. The story is constantly told in order to neutralize the affirmation of the great religions, to suggest that they learn humility and recognize that none of them can have more than one aspect of the truth. But, of course, the real point of the story is exactly the opposite” (p. 10)
Wait…what? The opposite? Newbigin goes on:
“If the king were also blind there would be no story” (p. 10)
In other words, the person telling the story for the sake of affirming pluralism is usually just saying something like, “You thought you were like the king? You’re so wrong. I am the king. I clearly see that you are groping an elephant when you think your holding a snake.”
At the end of the day, we each have a worldview with a claim, held however tenuously, to the truth. Sometimes the truth-claim is that we can’t possibly know the truth.
Now, does that simple fact give Christians like me license to go about lambasting people with our claims? Does that justify people who practically hit others over the head with their Bible hoping it will just sink in a little bit? NO. Newbigin has four basic points for Christians to remember when sharing their faith. And if you’re not a Christian, stay tuned, because you may just like what he has to say.
At any rate, that is what we’ll explore together in the next four days.