Christianity and Pluralism (5): Christianity = Statement or Story?

In this final installment on how Christianity interacts with a pluralistic culture, I want to start with a story.

Many years ago, our human ancestors huddled around fires listening to shamans and elders telling narrative stories by which they made sense of their world and their lives in it. They told myths about the world’s origins, and about how they as peoples came to be….They recounted myths about fairies, spirits, gods, and powerful cosmic forces. By narrating such fictional stories, our ancestors recounted meaningful explanations of a world that was to them mysterious and dangerous….As primitives, telling such stories, myths, and legends was the only way they knew how to explain the world and contemplate how to live in it…

But all of that has changed. We moderns no longer have to huddle around fires telling fanciful myths about creations, floods, trials, conquests, and hoped-for paradises. Science, industry, rationality, and technology have dispelled the darkness and ignorance that once held the human race captive to its fanciful fables. Today, through progress, enlightenment, and cultural evolution, we now possess positive knowledge, scientific facts, rational analyses. We no longer need to be a people of ballads and legends, for we are a people of periodic tables, technical manuals, genetic maps, and computer codes….We have left behind myths and legends….Indeed, by struggling to break out of the fear and ignorance of our ancestral myth-making past into the clear daylight of rational, scientific knowledge, we have opened up for the human race a future of greater prosperity, longevity, and happiness.

Such is the story we moderns–huddled around our televisions and computer work stations–like to tell each other. This is the dominant narrative by which we make sense of our world and the purpose of our lives in it. (Moral, Believing Animals, 63-4) Read more of this post

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Christianity and Pluralism (4): A Christian Agnostic

After the last three days of posts, you might get the sense that I think I know a whole lot more than I do. Well, that very well may be true. I guess only time will tell. But if you get the feeling that I think I know everything….I will respectfully disagree. (Bummer for me though.) In fact, an essential part of my belief in God is that he is incomprehensible. And if I can’t know everything about him, there’s sure to be more about this world I am quite ignorant about.

Lesslie Newbigin writes:

…it is essential to the integrity of our witness to this new reality [or the good news of Christianity] that we recognize that to be its witnesses does not mean to be the possessors of all truth. It means to be placed on the path by following which we are led toward the truth. (The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, 12)

In the Christian tradition I come from, there is a huge emphasis on the fact (and I use that word intentionally, cf. yesterday’s post) that God is incomprehensible. We cannot wrap our mind around him. As much as I write about God on this blog, Read more of this post

Christianity and Pluralism (3): Easter and a Co-opted Christianity

Lesslie Newbigin, the inspiration for this series, has a great story about a time when he was a young Christian missionary in India. It really helped me to grasp this next topic. He recalls:

When I was a young missionary I used to spend one evening each week in the monastery of the Ramakrishna Mission in the town where I lived, sitting on the floor with the monks and studying with them the Upanishads and the Gospels. In the great hall of the monastery, as in all the premises of the Ramakrishna Mission, there is a gallery of portraits of the great religious teachers of humankind. Among them, of course, is a portrait of Jesus. Each year on Christmas Day worship was offered before this picture. Jesus was honored, worshipped, as one of the many manifestations of deity in the course of human history. To me, as a foreign missionary, it was obvious that this was not a step toward the conversion of India. It was the co-option of Jesus into the Hindu worldview. Jesus had become just one figure in the endless cycle of karma and samsara, the wheel of being in which we are all caught up. He had been domesticated into the Hindu worldview. That view remained unchallenged. (GPS, 3)

Every culture has a set of beliefs its members take for granted. Newbigin calls this its plausibility structure. Read more of this post

Christianity and Pluralism (2): Coercion and Corruption of the Christian Message

Yesterday, I suggested that while a pluralistic attitude toward religion (i.e. saying that all religions are equally in the dark about ultimate things) is admirably humble, it is also deeply flawed. It turns out that while the pluralist says, “No single religion or worldview can get to the whole truth. So we should all just reject authoritative dogma and accept each others’ positions,” they are, at the same time, contradicting all those religions (like Christianity, Islam, various forms of Buddhism, etc.) that do make claims to ultimate truth. In fact, what the pluralist is doing is exactly what they tell others not to do–they are saying that their worldview encompasses and explains all other worldviews.

So why make this mistake? Why pretend to be inclusive and intellectually humble when we are actually exalting our worldview above all of the world’s great religions? Read more of this post

Christianity and Pluralism (1): Groping the Elephant

Religious symbols from the top nine organised ...

“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, Read more of this post