Christianity and Pluralism (2): Coercion and Corruption of the Christian Message
April 10, 2012 2 Comments
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?
It seems that one very valid reason is fear. People who claim to know the truth about ultimate things have been abusing that claim for their own benefit since time began. We saw it in the Crusades (for which Christians still have to apologize). We saw it in Stalin’s Russia. We see it in fear-mongering and name-calling American politics today. To many of us, it seems that “Truth” is tangled up in “Power” and we don’t want any part of it. Contemporary pluralists think Nietzsche was right after all: religion (especially Christianity) is just a way to conquer people through ideology. It is absolutely right that they want no part of that.
Lesslie Newbigin‘s first response to the pluralistic culture is simply to pay attention to that fact. He says:
“Part of the reason for the rejection of dogma [Truth] is that it has for so long been entangled with coercion, with political power, and so with the denial of freedom–freedom of thought and of conscience” (The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, 10).
But he doesn’t stop there. Christians, above everyone else, should be ashamed of using these kinds of tactics. Why? Because the Christian message rejects these power-driven strategies, and because the good news we have to share can only be accepted in freedom.
“When coercion of any kind is used in the interests of the Christian message, the message itself is corrupted. The truth is that it is the dogma rightly understood, namely the free gift of God’s grace in Jesus Christ, which alone can establish and sustain freedom of thought and of conscience. We must affirm the gospel [the good news of the Christian message] as truth, universal truth, truth for all peoples and for all times, the truth which creates the possibility of freedom; but we negate the gospel if we deny the freedom in which alone it can be truly believed” (GPS, 10)
In other words, a forced conversion is no conversion. Why? Because the good news of the Christian message is that God has given you unspeakable freedom in Christ, if you will accept it.
But what does Newbigin mean when he says that the gospel is the truth “which creates the possibility of freedom.” Remember Nietzsche? He said that Christianity’s claim to Truth is all about power, that Christians use it to stifle people and enslave them to their system, and he’s probably right….if the God of the Christians doesn’t exist. But if he does, and if he has offered us freedom from guilt, shame, hatred, and the dark side of our souls in Jesus Christ, then Christianity is about a power of a different kind. It’s about the powerful exercising their strength on behalf of the weak, just like Jesus, the Son of God:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross! (Philippians 2:6-8)